The Washington Post

Arlington makes memento exception in section with Iraq, Afghanistan dead

Mary McHugh mourns her dead fiance Sgt. James Regan at Section 60 of the Arlington National Cemetery. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Arlington National Cemetery officials, responding to complaints from upset families, will allow small photos and other mementos to be left next to headstones in Section 60, where the Iraq and Afghanistan war dead are buried.

In recent years, the families and friends of troops buried in Section 60 had transformed the plot of ground at Arlington into a living memorial to America’s long war in Iraq and its still unfinished fight in Afghanistan. Beginning in August, Arlington officials decided to treat the section by the same rules as the other parts of the cemetery and stripped the section of photographs, love letters, worry stones, crosses and coins that had been affixed to headstones for months or years.

Cemetery officials apologized to the family members for throwing out their mementos at a three-hour meeting held recently on the Arlington grounds. The cemetery’s executive director also offered to temporarily suspend Arlington’s cleanup policy in the section.

For the next seven months, when the cemetery’s grass is cut less frequently, family members will be permitted to leave small photos and other handmade mementos as long as they are not taped to the headstones. “We are looking for flexibility within Arlington’s current policies to meet their needs,” said Jennifer Lynch, a spokeswoman for the cemetery.

Other items that are frequently left at the cemetery, such as liquor bottles, ammunition shell casings and cigarettes, will be thrown away.

Family members were upset that they weren’t warned before their photographs and other memorabilia were thrown out by the cemetery’s maintenance crews. Cemetery officials put a short announcement about the changes on the cemetery’s Web site this summer, but few saw it. Most families discovered the change when they visited the grounds and discovered that their photographs and other homemade memorials were gone.

“The families were encouraged. . . . We left the meeting feeling heard,” said Ami Neiberger-Miller, a spokeswoman for TAPS, a nonprofit organization that works with families that have lost relatives who were serving in the military.

Many families with loved ones buried in Section 60 have maintained that because the war in Afghanistan is still ongoing and there are no major memorials to the Iraq and Afghan conflicts that they should be given more latitude to leave behind mementos. Others said that leaving small items or photographs helped them cope with the pain of their loss. “For some people, it helps,” said Neiberger-Miller.

Greg Jaffe covers the White House for The Washington Post, where he has been since March 2009.

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