At Arlington graves, a pain beyond words
Along the meticulously spaced rows of graves at Arlington National Cemetery, the names of the nation's wars are clearly etched into the headstones: World War I, World War II, Vietnam, Korea, the Persian Gulf.
Soon, a new inscription for troops killed in Iraq could appear: "Operation New Dawn."
Unlike in past conflicts, the overwhelming majority of headstones for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan at the nation's most hallowed military burial ground use the military's official names for those conflicts: Operation Enduring Freedom for Afghanistan, Operation Iraqi Freedom for Iraq. As of Sept. 1, Operation Iraqi Freedom has been rebranded Operation New Dawn.
Some families and veterans groups say those slogans are little more than propaganda tactics, ways for politicians and the Pentagon to sanitize the wars and drum up public support. The phrases are also confusing, the veterans groups say, because many people have no idea that Operation Enduring Freedom refers to Afghanistan. Using the words "new dawn" to mark a person's final resting place is inappropriate, even insulting, some family members say.
"It's not a new dawn; we lost a son," said Oscar Aviles, whose son Andrew Aviles, a Marine Corps lance corporal, was killed in Iraq in 2003. "It's just a lot of pain and anguish."
Unlike Arlington, which is run by the Army, the Department of Veterans Affairs' 131 cemeteries across the country generally do not use operation names on headstones. VA cemetery officials said they automatically put "Iraq" or "Afghanistan" on the drafts of headstone text that is shown to relatives of fallen service members; those cemeteries add the operation name only if a family requests it.
At Florida National Cemetery, one of the VA's largest, the issue of operation names generally "doesn't come up" with families, said Jo Schuda, a VA spokeswoman.
But at Arlington, where more than 630 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are buried, the template of a headstone that is shown to family members is "drawn up based on information from the active duty statement, which lists the operation name," cemetery spokeswoman Kaitlin Horst said in a statement. "The day of the funeral service, the next of kin has the opportunity to review the headstone format and discuss options for inscriptions on the headstone."
But several family members said Arlington cemetery officials did not provide them with any option about the wording on their loved one's headstone.
"I wasn't told I had a choice," said Paula Davis of Gaithersburg, whose son Justin Davis was killed in Afghanistan in 2006. "We were shown what was going to be on the tombstone and 'Operation Enduring Freedom' was already there."
Families can request a new headstone, and cemetery officials review each case and will often accommodate them.
On the day of her son's funeral, Davis said, she was so emotionally distraught she didn't have the presence of mind to question the wording. "If I had thought about it, I would have put 'Afghanistan,' " she said. "But when it's put in front of you, that's what you take."