At Arlington National Cemetery, mementos for latest war dead get more personal

The headstones wear Hawaiian leis and Mardi Gras beads. They are festooned with bottles of Yuengling, flasks full of Jack, boxes of cigars.

In Arlington National Cemetery’s Section 60, where those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan lie, the graves aren’t just markers of remembrance; they are canvases decorated with stones, shiny balloons and handwritten notes. In this corner of the nation’s most sacrosanct military burial ground, all manner of ornamentation abounds — one headstone is covered in lipstick kisses — bringing a colorful poignancy to an otherwise monochromatic place of mourning.

Above all there are faces. Arlington may officially consecrate the fallen by marble and etched lettering, but the families of Section 60 have rejected those protocols, covering the graves with photos of the dead. Here they are as children. Here they are with their battle buddies. Here they are with their families.

One note reads, “Dear Daddy, I know it seems impossible but I’m going to be a junior in high school . . .

Many of these mementos are gathered by curators from the U.S. Army Center for Military History who descend on Section 60 every week. To preserve what is left behind, they add the items to a collection they hope will one day become a museum exhibit to help tell the story of the wars, and their cost.

On Friday, Veterans Day, the cemetery will again be full of mourners who will leave in their wake new graveside gifts. And sometime next week, the curators will sweep through with their plastic bags.

Since the program began about two years ago, after news outlets reported that the cemetery was regularly trashing items left at graves and leaving others to rot in the rain, the curators have collected more than 4,500 objects. They are catalogued and stored at a climate-controlled facility at Fort Belvoir, where the air is recycled four times daily.

Flowers and other organic materials are not kept.

“Items that are not collected by the Center for Military History are removed when they become faded and unsightly or pose a hazard to groundskeepers,” said cemetery spokeswoman Jennifer Lynch. (She would not say how the uncollected objects are disposed of.)

At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, visitors have been leaving objects for many years, and they are collected daily by the National Park Service. Some have been displayed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. They also are kept at a Park Service facility in Landover.

At Arlington, before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,“the expression of grief was confined to wreaths and flowers — that’s all people brought by,” said Chris Semancik, acting chief of the Army’s Collections Branch. “It’s now changed to be much more personal in nature.”

At Christmas there are wrapped presents. At Halloween, pumpkins. At Valentine’s Day, hearts and cupids. At St. Patrick’s Day, many graves are covered with Guinness bottles and four-leaf clovers.

The Army has gathered all sorts of knickknacks: poker chips, a Martha’s Vineyard snow globe, bullets, a Superman Pez dispenser. Some items are deeply personal: ultrasound images, poems, Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars.

So much of the cemetery is for everyone else, the 4 million annual visitors who make it one of the most frequented stops on the Washington tour loop. They gather at the eternal flame at John F. Kennedy’s grave, the stately Memorial Amphitheater and, of course, the Tomb of the Unknowns.

But Section 60 is unlike any place else at Arlington. It’s a place for the living as much as the dead, both mournful and celebratory.

On a recent visit, Roderick Gainer, a curator with the military history center, scooped up a Coast Guard flag. U.S. flags, he leaves. They’ve already collected plenty.

“It’s unusual to get a Coast Guard flag,” he said. Into the bag it went.

On a nearby grave was a small plaque that said, “We love you.”

“That wasn’t here last week,” Gainer said. “So let’s leave it for another week.”

He left a bullet casing. “Those are becoming more and more common,” he said.

He took a family photo, a Marine Corps Marathon medal, a note that read, “For my love, Paul.”

“It’s an evolving process,” Gainer said. “We’re balancing sentimentality with documentation.”

Taking items from veterans’ graves could be hazardous duty. Gainer and his colleagues wear jackets that clearly identify them as Army staffers, in thick yellow lettering. At first, he said, families wanted to know what they were doing.

“They were never hostile, just curious,” he said. “Word spread very quickly, and then it was, ‘Are you the guys from the Center of Military History?’ ”

Overall, families are supportive of the program, but some are concerned that they “left a private note and it’s collected and then it’s in a museum somewhere,” said Amy Neiberger-Miller, a spokeswoman for TAPS, a nonprofit organization for families of fallen service members.

“There is awareness on all our parts that some things are personal and not for public dissemination,” said Charles Cureton, the director of Army Museums. But he said the notes are vital to the country’s understanding of the people who fought and died.

“Twenty years from now, 100 years from now, that’s the record of what people thought about those individuals, and it gives us connection to them,” he said. “And it makes that person who died timeless.”

The curators start collecting toward the rear of Section 60, from the graves of those killed in the wars’ early days. They move forward through the rows of headstones, and through recent history, from the days after Sept. 11 to the invasion of Iraq, to those killed in the surges of both wars, until they they get to where the dirt has just been recently turned.

They’ve been doing it so long now that they know many of the families, and they are getting to know more each week. Since they’ve started, about 10 new rows of graves have been added.

Finishing up their recent visit, the collectors reached the last row of Section 60, where the fresh graves did not yet have headstones, only temporary markers. At one there was a photograph of a soldier. A smiling face, peering up from the dirt.

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Christian Davenport covers federal contracting for The Post's Financial desk.
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