Maybe it’s because they live just a few miles from a stone memorial to Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s severed left arm. But when a group of residents from Virginia’s Northern Neck heard that the cremated body parts of American troops had been dumped unceremoniously in a local landfill, they knew what to do: Mark the place — rotting garbage and all — as sacred ground.
“People bring trash here; that’s what it is, a dump,” said Richard Lorey, an Army veteran who lives a few miles from the King George County Landfill just east of Fredericksburg. “But this is where our fallen heroes ended up, and this is where we should honor them.”
And so a year after their sometimes controversial efforts began, Lorey and a group of several dozen gathered Sunday to dedicate the landfill as the final resting place of the partial remains of at least 272 U.S. troops killed during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. They were placed here by the Air Force in a quiet practice first reported last year by The Washington Post.
The practice has ended, but the remains are still there. And now they are getting some home-grown military honors.
In the slanting autumn sun, uniformed military personnel and VFW members gathered outside the landfill gates. A high school trumpeter blew taps. An American Legion motorcycle drill team carried billowing U.S. flags on a lap around the interior of the landfill.
Gari-Lynn Smith, the widow of Army Sgt. 1st Class Scott R. Smith, whose remains had been dumped there, was on hand to unveil a plaque that honors the presence of “American service members known but to God.”
Smith, who was instrumental in uncovering the scandal, was both appreciative and angry in her remarks. “Scott, I love you and I miss you every day. I know you deserve more than this,” she said from the podium.
The idea of a dump-side memorial was born soon after reports emerged that mortuary workers at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, the country’s main point of return for service members killed abroad, had disposed of ashes from military personnel in the Virginia landfill.
The ashes reportedly came from body parts recovered from battlefields between 2004 and 2008. Most could not be identified, although some were traced by DNA analysis to 274 individuals. The families of those service members gave the Air Force permission to dispose of the fragments but were not told they would be cremated and then mixed with medical waste for disposal in a landfill.
The revelations sparked outrage on Capitol Hill, and the military now buries such ashes at sea. But in the community around the landfill, the episode provoked some deep thinking about how to add a measure of dignity to a chain-link enclosure that boasts none of the solemn shade of Arlington or the rolling, tombstone-covered fields of Gettysburg.
Lorey, the veteran who lives near the landfill, said the scandal was a hot topic at both his local tea party group and his American Legion post. Many people immediately wanted to see whether the remains could be removed and buried elsewhere. But Lorey, a retired chemist who worked at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in nearby Dahlgren, knew the ashes were beyond retrieval.
“We couldn’t undo what had already been done,” Lorey said. “But we thought the least we could do was get a plaque.”
Small donations from the community quickly added up, and after the project was featured in an edition of Waste Recycling News, Lorey began to get envelops from as far away as Texas and New Hampshire.
“I would open an envelope and there would be ten or twenty dollars, just cash, no note,” he said. “I got to where I was in tears every time I walked up to the mailbox.”
Eventually, the group raised about $3,500, enough to order the 3-by-3-foot cast bronze memorial from a local funeral home.
But there was disagreement about where to put it.
For many, the idea of marking a dump as a military burial ground was offensive. They proposed erecting the memorial at the county courthouse or even at Arlington National Cemetery.
Others, including King George County Supervisor Ruby Brabo, felt that the plaque should mark the actual spot. She had contacted Gari-Lynn Smith, who wanted the memorial to be near her husband’s ashes.
“If it was my husband in the landfill, I would want the plaque at the landfill,” Brabo said.
At a sometimes emotional meeting last July, Lorey pleaded with a divided county Board of Supervisors to give approval for placing the marker outside the landfill gates, a grassy setting where flag poles already flew American, Virginia, county and Waste Management Inc. flags.
“People think it’s a big pile of garbage and you’re going to put a plaque in front of it, but it’s not,” said Lorey. “It’s more like a little park.”
After he read aloud a supportive letter from Smith, the supervisors voted unanimously to approve the landfill location.
Brabo had less luck enlisting the Pentagon in the project, which memorializes an embarrassing episode. After getting some positive reactions to her preliminary requests for an honor guard, the ultimate answer was no, she said.
“Last fall, everybody seemed enthusiastic, but once it moved up the chain the enthusiasm was no longer there,” Brabo said.
According to Army spokesman Lt. Col. Steven Warren, the Pentagon turned down Brabo’s request because it came from her in a private capacity, not from the county supervisors.
“We would consider a request from the county government,” Warren said.
Brabo said there was little support among supervisors to make the formal request. So organizers put together the program without military help. A color guard was provided by a local Sea Cadets chapter.
“I think [the Department of Defense] has really missed an opportunity here,” Brabo said. “This was never about placing blame; it’s about respect and honor for our service members.”