At Arlington graves, a pain beyond words

By Christian Davenport Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 12, 2010; B1

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."

The word Afghanistan "immediately lets you know where he served," she said. "One hundred years from now, who is going to know what Operation Enduring Freedom or New Dawn means? I would prefer it be spelled out plain and clear."

In addition to being geographically unclear, the operation names strike some as an attempt to make the wars more palatable.

"They're sugarcoating the reality of a conflict by changing the name," said Vivianne Wersel, a member of Gold Star Wives, a support group for military widows. "If you're going to put down the war or the conflict that he or she was involved in, keep it simple. Don't make us need an interpreter to figure out what you're talking about."

The operation names "reek of politics, and our troops and our veterans should be above politics and should be insulated from the political jargon," said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

When he takes people to the cemetery who are unfamiliar with the operation names, Rieckhoff said he often has to explain them. "They look at the headstones and say, 'What does Operation Enduring Freedom mean?' And I say, 'Oh, that's Afghanistan.' That happens all the time."

Using operation names on headstones is a recent phenomenon that departs from the usual practice at Arlington. Most headstones there from the Persian Gulf War say "Persian Gulf," not "Operation Desert Shield" or "Operation Desert Storm," Horst said.

The name "Operation New Dawn" was an attempt by the Obama administration to signal the drawdown of forces in Iraq. Since that became the official name of the conflict more than a month ago, seven U.S. service members have died there. That is a reminder, Rieckhoff said, that despite the new, optimistic name and the announcement that combat operations have ended, Iraq remains a dangerous place.

VA officials could not say whether any service members killed during Operation New Dawn have those words on their headstone.

Rose Jenkins, whose son Philip Jenkins was killed in Iraq on Sept. 7, wasn't sure what words will be on his headstone. But she said she would not object if it said "Operation New Dawn."

"If that's what they're calling it, then that's what it has to be," she said.

The semantics of what gets carved in granite are not the most important thing, she said. "I support my son, and that's all that matters."

Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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