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Arlington's sweep of gravesite mementos distresses families of fallen

Oct. 10, 2013 - 07:39PM   |  
Arlington National Cemetery
Carol Brown visits the gravesite of her son, Thomas Brown, on Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., on May 27. Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are buried in Section 60. (Molly Riley / AP)
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Shortly after her first child arrived in 2010, Ami Neiberger-Miller took one of her birth announcements over to Arlington Cemetery and carefully placed it next to the headstone of her brother, Army Spc. Christopher Neiberger, who was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2007.

She is one of thousands of family members who for years have made Arlington Cemetery’s Section 60, where the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are buried, a vibrant and heart-wrenching memorial to the fallen, with grave stones adorned with laminated photos, love letters, small stones, children’s drawings, occasionally a bottle of whiskey and other personal mementos.

Now, however, cemetery officials are beginning to transform Section 60 into the same kind of pristine resting place where older veterans are buried, where the rows of white headstones are stripped bare with few if any signs of recent visitors.

The cemetery in August stepped up enforcement of a written policy to remove items left at the grave sites, a rule that was consciously overlooked in Section 60 for years.

It’s proven controversial, as many families were deeply troubled to know that cemetery workers were conducting weekly sweeps to remove all items other than fresh flowers.

“It’s very personal to be able to leave an object at a grave site. It helps them to feel connected to their loved one and it helps them to leave the cemetery happy and go on with their new life,” said Neiberger-Miller, who works with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, which provides support to family members of deceased troops.

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 Advisory Committee on Arlington National Cemetery is wrestling with these issues as they develop and recommend a permanent policy,” said Jennifer Lynch, a spokeswoman for the cemetery.

“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. But we recognize the special place Section 60 holds for so many families, and are doing the best we can to preserve the memories of the fallen. In the interim, the advisory committee recommended that the cemetery make an effort to improve upkeep, consistent with longstanding cemetery policy. We are abiding by that recommendation,” Lynch said.

Many of the removed mementos are discarded, but the Army, which officially runs the cemetery, has been collecting some of them for storage at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. More than 20,000 items were selected for storage “based on the items unusual, artistic or historical value to the service member at whose grave site the memento was left,” according to the Army.

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