The administration is racking up quite the history of treating those who fought for this country less than respectfully, from the massive backlog in claims at the VA to this week’s attempt by park police to keep World War II honor flight veterans out of the memorial. And, of course, there’s what the Virgin Islands’ delegate to Congress recently shared with us: their VA center doesn’t even have a doctor.
Now, Arlington Cemetery has swept through Section 60 of the grounds and taken all the photos and trinkets off the graves of the fallen, keeping some pics deemed historical but throwing most of the loving tributes in the trash:
Over the past weeks, a quiet transformation has taken place in Section 60, leaving family members of the dead feeling hurt, saddened and bewildered. Today Section 60 resembles the quiet cemetery of an older generation’s war, not the raw, messy burial ground of one still being fought.
The changes began in August when cemetery officials decided that Section 60 should be subject to the same rules as the rest of the grounds. “The policy hasn’t changed,” said Jennifer Lynch, a spokeswoman for the cemetery. “The policy is the same, but the enforcement is different.” She said the cemetery was responding to complaints that the section had become too disorderly.
Most families discovered the change when they visited the grounds and found only tape marks where laminated pictures of their loved ones had been hanging for the last several years. Some of the mementos “deemed worthy of retention” were gathered by Army historians for storage at Fort Belvoir, according to a statement from the cemetery. Most appear to have been thrown in the trash.
Belle’s son, Lance Cpl. Nicholas Kirven, was killed eight years ago in Afghanistan. Ever since, Belle has decorated her son’s grave for his birthday, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day and Easter, leaving the adornments up for two or three weeks and then tucking them away in her attic.
“That’s my way of remembering Nicholas,” she said. “All these silly holidays.”
Another mother, whose son was killed in Iraq in 2005, recently left small glass hearts on the graves of her son and several other soldiers. When she returned to the cemetery the next day, everything was gone. “I cried. It was like no one cared anymore,” Teresa Arciola said.
Laura Hess, whose son, 1st Lt. R.J. Hess, was killed in April in Afghanistan, painted her son’s initials, a 10th Mountain Division patch and a Captain America shield on small stones over the summer and stacked them on his tombstone. For weeks they shared space there with a set of one of his friend’s dog tags.
“Painting the stones and leaving them there was a way of unloading all of this grief,” Hess said.
“It was our way of communicating with R.J.,” said her husband, Robert, a retired Army colonel.
Those stones are now gone, too. Hess said she has no idea if they were “deemed worthy” of storage at Fort Belvoir or thrown in the trash by the maintenance crews. “They never let the families know,” she said. “I would have driven there immediately and collected my things. It is so hard. It is just not right.”
Though Section 60 is the resting place for veterans of World War II and on, the vast majority of graves here belong to those who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A policy on Arlington’s website says Section 60 families are asked “not to leave items at gravesites that present a safety or health concern.”
“Additionally, visitors are not allowed to affix items to government furnished markers. These items will be removed and discarded,” the memo continues.
“ANC History Office representatives will photograph objects determined to have unusual, artistic or historical significance during their weekly visits. Select objects deemed worthy of retention will be stored at Fort Belvoir, VA. ANC maintenance personnel will dispose of items not collected by ANC History Office representatives to facilitate normal operations and maintenance procedures, such as frequent mowing in order to maintain a neat and orderly appearance and prevent damage to equipment and adjacent grave markers.”