Arlington National Cemetery policy removes families' disorderly items
Elizabeth Belle walked toward the grave of her son carrying a canvas bag full of miniature pumpkins, silk leaves and other decorations for his headstone. Then she noticed the changes.
Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, where more than 800 Iraq and Afghanistan war dead are buried, had been stripped bare. The photographs of young dead soldiers were gone. The balloons, too, and love letters, the sonograms and worry stones, the crosses and coins.
“They've taken everything,” Belle said.
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 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.”
Lynch 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 past several years. Some of the mementos “deemed worthy of retention” were gathered by Army historians for storage at Fort Belvoir, Va., according to a statement from the cemetery. Most appear to have been thrown in the trash.
Belle's son, Marine Corps 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.
Those stones are now gone, too. Hess said she has no idea if they were “deemed worthy” of storage at Fort Belvoir or thrown away.
The cemetery's executive director plans to meet with families on Sunday to discuss the new enforcement approach. The cemetery's advisory board, meanwhile, “is wrestling with these issues as they develop and recommend a permanent policy,” said Lynch.