Nearly all Arlington National Cemetery gravestones for troops killed in Iraq or Afghanistan are inscribed with the operation names the Pentagon selected to promote public support for the conflicts. That was not the case with earlier wars.
Families of fallen soldiers and Marines are being told they have the option to have the government-furnished headstones engraved with "Operation Enduring Freedom" or "Operation Iraqi Freedom" at no extra charge, whether the service members are buried in Arlington or elsewhere. A mock-up shown to many families includes the operation names.
The vast majority of military gravestones from other eras are inscribed with just the basic information: name, rank, military branch, date of death and, if applicable, the war and foreign country in which the person served.
Families are supposed to have final approval over what goes on the tombstones. That has not always happened.
Nadia and Robert McCaffrey, whose son Patrick was killed in Iraq in June 2004, said "Operation Iraqi Freedom" ended up on his government-supplied headstone in Oceanside, Calif., without family approval. "I was a little taken aback," Robert McCaffrey said, describing his reaction when he first saw the operation name on Patrick's tombstone.
"In one way, I feel it's taking advantage to a small degree," he added. "Patrick did not want to be there; that is a definite fact."
The owner of Granite Industries of Vermont, the company that has been making gravestones for Arlington and other national cemeteries for nearly two decades, echoed that concern. "It just seems a little brazen that that's put on stones," said Jeff Martell. "It seems like it might be connected to politics."
Not so, says the Department of Veterans Affairs. "The headstone is not a PR purpose. It is to let the country know and the people that visit the cemetery know who served this country and made the country free for us," VA official Steve Muro said.
Since 1997, the government has been paying for virtually everything inscribed on the gravestones. Before that, families had to pay the gravestone makers separately for any inscription beyond the basics. It was not until the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 that the department instructed national cemetery directors and funeral homes to advise families of fallen soldiers and Marines that they could have operation names such as "Enduring Freedom" or "Iraqi Freedom" included on the headstones.
VA officials say neither the Pentagon nor the White House exerted any pressure to get families to include the operation names, and that families always had the option of including information such as battle or operation names but did not always know it.
"It's just the right thing to do and it always has been, but it hasn't always been followed," said Dave Schettler, director of the VA's memorial programs service.
VA officials say they do not know how many families of the nearly 2,000 soldiers and Marines who have died in Iraq or Afghanistan have opted to include the operation names.
At Arlington, all but a few of the 193 gravestones of those who died in Iraq and Afghanistan carry the operation names. War casualties are also buried in many of the 121 other national cemeteries and numerous state and private graveyards.
The interment service supervisor at Arlington, Vicki Tanner, said cemetery representatives show families a mock-up of the headstone with "Operation Iraqi Freedom" or "Operation Enduring Freedom," and ask their approval.
The Pentagon's decision to call the 1989 invasion of Panama "Operation Just Cause" initiated a trend of selecting operation names with themes that would help generate public support for the conflicts.