What's trashed at Arlington National Cemetery

Many personal mementos of dead soldiers are being thrown out -- a stark contrast to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Published July 17, 2009 10:16AM (EDT)

A few days after Memorial Day, I walked across the sprawling, plush lawn of Arlington National Cemetery. I headed toward Section 60, a remote area of the famous burial ground, where 600 service members from Iraq and Afghanistan are laid to rest. Gina Gray, former public affairs officer at the cemetery, had testified that mismanagement at Arlington had resulted in callous treatment of personal mementos and artifacts left on grave sites in Section 60. The sun was out after several days of rain. As I approached the gravestones, I saw that Gray was right.

Left out in the rain to rot were crayon drawings by children who had lost a parent, photographs of soldiers with their babies, painted portraits and thank-you notes from grade-school kids to fallen soldiers they had never known. Colors of artworks ran together. Photos were blurred and wilted. Poems and letters were illegible wads of wet paper. A worker in a brown uniform wandered among the graves, blasting the headstones with a power washer without regard to what was left of the mementos -- or the obviously uncomfortable mourners looking on. Some items got further soaked. The worker blasted others across the grass. Many of them would end up in a black trash bin in the cemetery's service area.

Arlington's poor treatment of the mementos and gifts -- testaments to the personal cost of the post-9/11 wars in the Middle East -- appeared to stand in contrast to practices at other cemeteries. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which runs 130 cemeteries across the country, asks people not to leave items other than flowers on the graves. But when it does find those items, it collects and holds them for 30 days in case the family wants to claim them. Across the Potomac, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial maintains a much stricter policy. It collects virtually everything, down to the last cigarette, left at "the wall." Every item is then recorded and placed in a climate-controlled warehouse, often visited by historians and researchers.

The parents I met in Section 60 were stunned to hear that grave-site artifacts often end up in the trash. Karen Meredith's son, Lt. Ken Ballard, was killed in Iraq in 2004. She and her family regularly lavish Ballard's Arlington grave with flowers, potted plants, flags and other mementos. "Our goal was to have the most decorated grave," she said. She told me about her Section 60 acquaintances who leave silk roses on Valentine's Day and Peeps on Easter. On Mardi Gras, another family decorates headstones with beads. This Memorial Day, Meredith and another family whose son was killed in Iraq raised a glass of champagne to Ken. "Ken would have loved that," she said. "That is a way to celebrate his life." They left the champagne glassed behind.

I later showed Meredith a photograph of Ballard's grave after the rains, heaped with dead flowers and crumpled flags. She was distraught. "It looks like they used Ken's grave as a repository of crap," she said. "It makes me sad. People leave things that are really meaningful." Jean Feggins, whose son, Albert Markee Nelson, was killed in Iraq in 2006, had a similar response when I told her I had seen mementos from Section 60 being hosed off grave sites and piled into trash heaps. "They are throwing out people's photos and letters?" she exclaimed. "That is very insensitive. I'll bet people would not leave that stuff if they knew. They really should archive those treasures -- and that really is what they are to the families that leave them."

So why were artifacts left on the graves of Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers being treated so poorly? "The photos, letters and signs are picked up when they become weather-worn and unsightly, similar to how the flowers are picked up once they've wilted," cemetery spokeswoman Kaitlin Horst wrote me in an e-mail. "The medals, badges, religious items and other mementos are saved and kept with our historian."

I asked to meet with the cemetery historian. Two days later, Horst met me at the information kiosk underneath the arching glass-paneled ceiling of Arlington's air-conditioned visitor center. She was with the mustachioed historian, Tom Sherlock, who has been working there since the 1970s. "Maintaining Arlington is a sign of respect, maintaining these grounds pristinely so that they are not cluttered," Horst began.

Horst led us into the basement of the visitor center and into a windowless conference room. There, spread out neatly across an average-size conference table, were dozens of military awards and coins, a clutch of rosaries, a soldier's jacket, a U.S. Army Ranger flag, and two or three pieces of artwork made by children. It was everything, Horst explained, the cemetery had collected since 9/11, or in nearly eight years.

"Is this it?" I asked, thinking about the huge volume of material I had seen during my walks through Section 60. Sherlock nodded.

He said the workers who care for Section 60 turn in some of the material to him, and Sherlock collects the rest on his own. He stores it all in his office. During our discussion, the process of what to save and what to toss out seemed surprisingly ad hoc and arbitrary, based more on Sherlock's personal sentimentalities than preserving history.

"My sensitivity is to any armed forces decorations, such as the Bronze Star here," he said, gesturing to the award on the table. He said he also saves "flags, like uniform flags, or anything that is a religious icon, regardless of what it is."

Horst and Sherlock said the rest of the material gets thrown in the trash. "We don't save, like, teddy bears or those types of things," Sherlock noted. "Birthday balloons -- we don't retrieve those. Or an open can of beer. There have been lots of things like that."

I didn't see many of the items that I recall from Section 60 that, according to Sherlock's criteria, should have been saved. I only saw one "KIA" bracelet, for example, in Arlington's collection, though I'd seen several atop the graves during my treks.

Horst added that the cemetery also throws out cards, photos and letters because they get wet in the rain. "We don't want to pick stuff up too early off the graves," she said. "Think about the stuff that has been blown between graves. How do you know where it came from? The notes that are left, and then it rains, become unrecognizable." In Section 60, she recalled, "I've seen a mug of hot chocolate. You know, do you save a mug? You can't save the hot chocolate."

She continued. "We went out there after Memorial Day and there was a birthday package. We let it go for a few days and it had gotten wet and the crews picked it up. Tom and I both felt very uncomfortable opening it because we thought, Maybe it is something we need to save? We opened it and it was just a wooden block." They threw it out.

Horst defended the cemetery's practices. "This is not an ill-intentioned policy," she said. "We are not trying to wrong people. We are not trying to throw away history. We do make an effort here. We are not throwing rosaries away. We are not throwing [uniform] patches away. I guess we can't claim to catch all of it," she acknowledged.

Sherlock admitted that preserving and recording everything might create "a very valuable tool for the American people." But he added he would want to discuss the idea with families that visit Section 60.

"Is that something you have explored?" I asked.

"No," Sherlock said.

I asked Sherlock whether he had ever visited the facility in Landover, Md., that holds the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection. He had not.

I contacted Rick Weidman, director of government relations at Vietnam Veterans of America, who has walked through Section 60 himself. For families and friends of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the section "has become their Vietnam Veterans Memorial," he said. "That is where people go to square away their feelings about their comrades who got blown away." He was surprised to hear that some of the memorabilia he had seen at Section 60 was thrown out. "This is a major hole that needs to be filled," he said.

At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection in Landover I stared at one lone cigarette. Since 1986, the National Park Service, which manages the Vietnam memorial in Washington, has collected all of the artifacts left at the wall by mourners.

But a cigarette?

Duery Felton Jr., the Vietnam collection curator and a Vietnam veteran himself, had been leading me on a tour of some of the artifacts preserved from the wall. Each piece -- no matter how mundane it might appear at first glance -- is collected nightly to protect it from the elements. It is then recorded, placed in labeled blue boxes and stacked on 15-foot shelves in a climate-controlled warehouse.

Felton and I now stood in a room off of the main storage area, where some of the collection is on display in tall glass cases. Felton stood next to me, looking through his wire-rimmed glasses at the cigarette. "There are a lot of subtleties to this collection," he noted.

I must have looked confused or incredulous. The value of saving a single cigarette was clearly lost on me.

"Look closely," Felton said quietly.

I peered in at the cigarette. Someone had taken a pen and written on it in tiny letters, "It ain't wet. It ain't broke."

Felton waited. He could see this didn't help me much. He smiled. Then he explained the sensation of patrolling the jungles of Vietnam, completely soaking wet, for weeks on end. You felt like you would never, ever be dry again. "A dry cigarette was worth a million dollars," he explained.

As Felton and I walked slowly through the Vietnam collection, it was easy to see that some items screamed a message loud and clear. One person left at the wall a bamboo tiger cage of the type used to hold American POWs. But some objects whispered in a language decipherable only by those who served in Vietnam, like that cigarette. The significance of others can only be imagined. Someone left a bag of M&M's, potentially remembering the occasional use of the candy as a placebo by medics when supplies ran out, Felton explained. A can of Budweiser, a can of Chef Boyardee beef ravioli and a pack of cigarettes is labeled in commemoration of "the great feast of August, 1967."

In the Landover facility, shelves are overflowing with everyday items. There are safety pins from a baby's diaper, birthday and Christmas cards, watches, dollar bills with notes scribbled on them and even toilet paper. (Dry toilet paper also came at a premium in the wet jungle.) A baseball is labeled: "In memory of Richard Allen Brekken, December 14, 1945 – January 6, 1999." There's a bottle of sand from Vietnam, chewing tobacco, a can of Spam and the AK-47 bullet that killed a soldier named Henry Lee Bradshaw on August 12, 1968. Teddy bears rest forever in glass cases.

"This is tangible evidence of the effect of Vietnam on the psyche of the public," Felton said. "Most of this collection is also a reflection of the evolution of social history, the history of the everyday person."

In fact, staff at Felton's facility manage a total of 40 historic collections in the Landover facility. Those include items owned by Frederick Douglass and Clara Barton, and artifacts from Ford's Theater and the Antietam battlefield. But Felton said the facility receives more requests from researchers for access to the Vietnam collection than the other 39 collections combined.

Gary Patnosh is co-director of the Jersey Explorer Children's Museum, which currently displays more than 100 artifacts on loan from the Vietnam collection. "That collection teaches more than anyone can imagine, he said. "Certainly it teaches people to think about the past and think about a war. But it teaches folks what it is like for a mother to lose a son or a sister to lose a brother, or how somebody had wished they had said something and they did not."

Patnosh said students often find the seemingly mundane objects left at the wall to be the most provocative. Among the items he features in the Jersey Explorer Children's Museum is a broken home plate from a baseball diamond. "Maybe it was for coming home," Patnosh said. "Maybe he played ball. Maybe his father played ball. Who knows? But there is magic in that home plate."

Some of the most moving items in the collection are photographs and letters. Numerous photos show young soldiers clad in green, mostly men, smiling out from under metal helmets. Sometimes deceased men are circled or labeled in the photos by an unknown hand. In many letters, people are talking to the dead. "For twenty two years I have carried your picture in my wallet," one veteran wrote in a letter, placed alongside a photo taken off the body of an enemy Vietnamese soldier. The photo shows the Vietnamese soldier, in uniform, posing with a girl.

"I was only 18 years old that day that we faced one another on that trail in Chu Lai, Vietnam," the veteran continued in his letter to the dead Vietnamese soldier. "Why you did not take my life I'll never know. You stared at me for so long armed with your AK-47 and yet you did not fire. Forgive me for taking your life, I was reacting just the way I was trained, to kill V.C. or gooks, hell you weren't even considered human, just gook/target, one in the same. So many times over the years I have stared at your picture and your daughter, I suspect. Each time my heart and gutts [sic] would burn with the pain of guilt."

Another letter reads: "Sorry about leaving you on the chopper pad. Wish I had stayed and missed my flight to the world. Should have gone to the hospital with you. I didn't know you was hit that bad. Never once did I think you wouldn't make it."

As I read those words, I could not stop thinking about the countless letters I'd seen on the graves in Section 60 over the previous weeks. What war stories had been lost forever? What words from a father to a son or wife to a husband were sitting in some landfill? What meaningful personal artifacts had been relegated to the Arlington trash bin?

Arlington National Cemetery superintendent John Metzler took exception to my questions. "I am a Vietnam veteran. I served a year in Vietnam," he said. "There is a tremendous difference between a memorial, such as the Vietnam memorial, and an operating national cemetery like Arlington. We are doing close to 7,000 funerals a year. We are an active cemetery, which means we are excavating graves, we are conducting services, we are closing graves, we are doing sod and seeding, we are refilling graves and we are doing all kinds of maintenance activities in order to maintain the appearance of the cemetery."

He pointed out that Arlington posts regulations that ask families not to leave items other than flowers on the graves. But even when they do, he said, he was being extra mindful of them.

"In Section 60, I have made a conscious decision because of the sensitivity of what is in Section 60 right now -- our young men and women who have passed away in our nation's current wars -- to leave things on there a little bit longer," he said. "Even things that aren't supposed to be there, we leave for a period of time, and then pick them up. It just would not be practical from an operation standpoint to try to collect everything, to warehouse it or to leave it on the graves for an indefinite period of time."

In contrast to the upset families I had spoken to, and the neglected and trashed memorabilia I had seen, Metzler said, "The comments I get from the families are overwhelmingly thankful of the maintenance of the cemetery, of how people are treated here and how they are received by Visitor Center staff or my employees out in the cemetery."


(Research assistance by Christopher M. Matthews and Josh Loewenstein)

By Mark Benjamin

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

MORE FROM Mark Benjamin

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Arlington National Cemetery Investigation