"We don't shake hands, we hug,"says Karen Meredith as she pulls a new member of "Team Ken" into her warm embrace. "We're family."
Team Ken is the group of people who meet every Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery to honor the life of 1st Lieutenant Kenneth Ballard, who was killed in action May 30, 2004 in Najaf, Iraq at the age of 26.
Karen Meredith is Ken's mother.
On a sweltering, humid day at Arlington, Karen welcomes a crowd of roughly 30 people -- relatives, friends and men who had served with her son -- to a place where all wilted a bit in the 90-degree heat, but where none would have been anywhere else on this day.
For this group, the gathering place is the same every Memorial Day: Arlington Site 8006 in Section 60, which today is the most crowded of the expansive cemetery's 70 sections because, sadly, it is the final resting place for so many of our troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It's a subdued scene with quiet conversations and singing birds as the only ambient sounds, punctuated with mournful bursts from the ceremonial bagpipers who wander America's most sacred military burial ground.
An older man stands before a grave weeping softly as a woman he does not know walks by with a soothing pat of support on his shoulder. One young woman is draped over a headstone, quietly shedding tears while a few rows away, an Army wife sits on the ground alone, softly dabbing her eyes and rocking gently.
And of course, there is that sea of headstones -- white marble and a uniform 13 by 24 inches -- extending as far as the eye can see, row upon row in a landscape that can be overwhelming in its sheer numbers and make it difficult to understand the individual scope of each life lost.
Then you come back to Site 8006, where Ken Ballard was buried on Friday, October 22, 2004 at 2:00 p.m.
It is now about 11:00 a.m. on Monday and Karen Meredith is still greeting arriving guests and supporters.
"Ken was such a dynamic person and everybody always said when he came into the room they knew something good was going to happen so there are plenty of Ken stories to share today," she says. "So this does get a little easier in some ways, the people who show up at Arlington with their stories, who knew Ken, who served with him... They show up and it helps."
"I think Vice President Biden said it the best that I've ever heard when he was speaking to military survivors he said 'I promise you that one day a smile will come to your lips before tears come to your eyes when you think of your loved one.'"
Karen says she will be at Arlington every Memorial Day for the rest of her life.
Families who have lost someone to war come to Arlington having paid a price beyond anything most of us could imagine. When they think of Memorial Day, it's not an abstract, vaguely-patriotic thought of countrymen who have died in service. Rather, it is about their child, a husband or wife, parent or grandchild -- it is a national holiday suddenly made the most solemn and personal of family traditions.
For Karen, it is about a little boy, her only child, who grew up with a love for reading and sports, mostly soccer and baseball, and graduated from Mountain View High School in 1995. Coming from a family with a long tradition of service, Ken became the fourth generation in his family to enter the military, joining the Army as an enlisted man right out of high school. He would serve in Bosnia and Macedonia and, after winning an Army scholarship, attend Middle Tennessee State University, earning a bachelor's degree in international relations and getting his commission as a second lieutenant in 2002.
Ken would go on to become a tank commander and helped lead the initial march to Baghdad in May of 2003. He then became a leader of 2nd Platoon, of the Crusaders of Charlie Company in the summer of 2003.
He had expected to leave Iraq in April of 2004 but was extended when a series of battles broke out in Baghdad. After scrubbing a welcome-home party that had been planned for May 22, 2004, Karen got the call that, as she puts it, "would change my life" at 8:53 a.m. on May 31, 2004 notifying her that her son had been killed.
The Team Ken gatherings began at Arlington the following Memorial Day in 2005 and continued Monday, marking the eighth year of Ken Ballard's mom making the cross-country trip to celebrate her son's life.
"This really is a celebration," she said. "We had him for 26 years and it wasn't long enough for him or for me or all his family but he has brought us all together in a way we probably would not have. We've got family coming from Alabama, Kentucky, California and, yes it's a day of celebration where we celebrate Ken's life."
A member of Gold Star Mothers, who has made countless media appearances as an advocate for military families, Karen says there's nothing wrong with people enjoying the long weekend and that most military survivors ask only for a few moments of remembrance for their loved ones.
"They can go to the beach, they can have a barbeque," Karen says with a smile. "But please just remember what Memorial Day is about and what it's really about is those we have lost."
She feels oddly at home at Arlington, a place filled with memories of men and women who in some cases rest here after dying of old age, their lives having run their natural course, and where others are honored for lives that had just begun. These marble headstones can mark either the end of a long fruitful life or a life ending in ultimate sacrifice, where the full measure of what this man or woman could have become remains forever unknown.
There is a bond among people who come here to celebrate and remember and Karen feels that very strongly in Section 60 where the emotional wounds are so fresh.
"We do know a lot of other families and they'll come by and talk to me," she said. "The man buried next to Ken has the same birthday and we know his family and a couple of rows down a couple lost their son on Ken's birthday. Both of his parents are older and have died so I always make sure he gets flowers on his grave since his parents are gone."
"And this is just Arlington. This is not all the other national cemeteries, the private places, the small town cemeteries," she continues. "But for these recent wars, this is 800 people out of 6,000 killed and there are many other important places out there."
For Karen and the rest of Team Ken, it is a sad day but it's also a time for hugs, stories of a life well-lived and a quiet champagne toast at this most sacred of military places that now also belongs to Ken's family and friends.
"To Ken," the group cheers in unison, clinking their glasses after Karen offers a moving tribute not to loss, but to the exceptional life of Ken Ballard.
After all the champagne has been poured, Karen Meredith floats among Team Ken at her designated spot in Section 60. She hugs everyone -- multiple times -- she jokes, smiles a lot and makes this as happy a celebration of her son's life as she possibly can. But then you look at her eyes and see much more. She works so hard to make sure everyone else is enjoying the day, but those eyes reveal the silent hurt that only a person who has lost a child or a spouse can fully understand. Her eyes seldom well up on this Memorial Day but they speak volumes of sadness, loss and a gathering that she would undoubtedly give her own life to not be hosting on the last Monday of each May.
But she smiles and laughs, tries to brighten those eyes and goes on. Based on the sense of sacrifice and commitment Ken Ballard stood for, it's what he would have wanted.
"Ken wrote something in his journal before he went over there," says Karen, softly. "He wrote 'I have a lot of responsibility for my platoon and I hope that I'm able to bring everyone back'."
"Ken was the only one who died over there. And I don't think he would have had it any other way."