WASHINGTON – 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 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.”
Cemetery officials met with family members Oct. 6 and later agreed to permit small photographs and “handcrafted items not affixed to the headstones” and also to scale back the weekly sweep to once every two weeks.
The cemetery’s advisory board, meanwhile, “is wrestling with these issues as they develop and recommend a permanent policy,” said Lynch, the spokeswoman. “The fact is that Arlington National Cemetery is not the Vietnam War Memorial or the WWII memorial — it is a functioning cemetery, and we must remain true to that mission.”
In the first years of the war, Section 60 resembled other areas of the cemetery. As the death toll from the wars mounted, the mementos built up in the graveyard. Army curators collected some objects for storage in a climate-controlled facility. The rest of the photos, letters and children’s drawings were usually left until they became “unsightly,” said Ami Neiberger-Miller, a spokeswoman for TAPS, a nonprofit organization that works with military families who have lost relatives in the war.
But, what is happening now appears to be the first wholesale cleaning of Section 60.
The mothers, fathers and spouses of the recent war dead generally agree on the need for limits. Noisy wind chimes and Christmas lights have long been banned. Bottles of whiskey, cartons of cigarettes and 12-packs of beer are often left as tributes to fallen friends. “I understand they want to maintain the dignity of the cemetery, and that has to continue,” said Vanessa Adelson, whose son Stephan Mace was killed in Afghanistan in 2010 and who has decorated his grave with laminated photos. “But they have to understand a lot of families are grieving, and this is how we cope with grief.”
Although Section 60 is dominated by the Afghan and Iraq war dead, deceased veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam are still being buried there. Some of the dispute over the cemetery’s appearance seems to be generational. “My parents are buried in Section 60 . . . and it was upsetting to see the rules being disregarded,” said one commenter on Arlington National Cemetery’s official Facebook page. A spokeswoman for the cemetery sent the string of comments on the new policy to show that there was support for the change.
The posting was mixed in with others insisting that Section 60 deserved special treatment. “The saddest acre in America” is what Elizabeth Belle calls it.
Unsure of what to do when she saw that the section had been stripped clean, Belle approached her son’s grave and placed the pumpkin she had brought with her on top of the headstone. At the end of her visit, she picked it up and took it away with her. “I guess I’m going to have to drive around with a pumpkin in my car for the week,” she said.
A dozen rows away, Laura Hess pulled out a penny stamped with the year of her son’s birth. “They won’t find this,” she said, stuffing it into the ground next to his headstone. Then she bent over and kissed the headstone, leaving a crimson lipstick mark on the white marble. “They can’t take this away,” she said.
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