Mementoes at Arlington Graves Form Archival Record

Section 60 becomes community of remembrance

By Kimberly Hefling
|  Thursday, Apr 15, 2010  |  Updated 8:30 AM EDT
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Mementoes at Arlington Graves Form Archival Record

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ARLINGTON, VA - DECEMBER 12: Sarah Walton hugs the tombstone of her husband, Lt. Col. James Walton, at Arlington National Cemetery after placing a Christmas wreath at his graveside December 12, 2009 in Arlington, Virginia. More than 15,000 wreaths were placed at Arlington National Cemetery as part of the Wreaths Across America project. Walton was killed while serving in Afghanistan. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

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Army curator James Speraw stood by Spc. Christopher Coffland's grave, tucked among the rows of white headstones at Arlington National Cemetery, and read the inscription on dog tags that he cupped gently in his palms.

``I thank God every time I remember you,'' said the tags. ``We love you Chris, our brother.''

Speraw had little time to ponder the 43-year-old soldier who was killed in Afghanistan. ``8955,'' he called out to a fellow curator,
who jotted that grave site number down. They took photos of the dog tags and placed them in an archival bag, part of a new trial effort to preserve graveside mementoes at Section 60 -- Arlington's primary resting place for the dead from the Iraq and Afghan wars.

The two then moved on to another grave to collect a teddy bear and blue stuffed bunny left for another fallen soldier. A few rows
away, a backhoe pushed dirt over the grave of a servicemember buried minutes earlier, its loud, steady rumble punctuating the air
in a sad refrain.

``It's an honor to do it, but you just really hate to see the graves,'' Speraw said, choking back tears.

Without a national memorial to the more than 5,300 servicemembers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, Section 60
has become its own community of remembrance. Thousands of mementoes left at their graves stand testament to the grief of loved ones.

Crown Royal whiskey bottles, war medals, birth announcements, wedding photos, Christmas ornaments, G.I. Joe action figures,
painted rocks, church bulletins, a fishing lure, even a rubber duck are among the items left at the graves of the more than 600 from
the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who are buried at Arlington.  

Families gather for birthday parties for the fallen, leaving behind cupcakes and balloons. War orphans drop off handmade
valentines. Twenty-somethings with crewcuts and military boots smoke a cigar and set an empty beer bottle next to a buddy's white
grave marker.

It's created a quandary for Army officials who hadn't seen the phenomenon in past wars. What do you do with such items?
Unlike the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, where the National Park Service collects and stores such objects daily, Arlington is a
working military cemetery with strict rules to keep it pristine. Because there were no collection procedures in place, most of the
items left at grave sites simply ended up in the trash.

That changed in the early fall when the U.S. Army Center of Military History at Fort McNair in Washington quietly stepped in at
the request of then-Army Secretary Pete Geren. Now, each Thursday, typically three curators in dark jackets carrying cameras walk
through Section 60 to collect and catalog nonperishable objects left at the graves.

The project is a pilot, and it's unclear whether it will become permanent. For now, the 1,300 items collected so far are stored at
Fort Belvoir, Va.

It's unclear what's next for the project, which is supported by many families but not all.

``Some people have talked to me and argued that the thing they want is this material to disappear,'' said Robert Dalessandro,
assistant chief of military history at the Fort McNair center. ``What I've learned through the course of this project, what our
whole team has learned, is that people grieve in different ways,'' he said.

The curators say they, too, have become emotionally invested. Most are current or retired military members and know people buried
in Section 60.

At some point, possibly this summer, Army Secretary John McHugh will evaluate the work and determine the next step. The items could appear someday in museums or books about the conflicts. For now, the historians are opting not to ``accession'' the
material collected. Doing so means the items would forever become military property.

Instead, they have returned items to family members when asked. One family member was a widow with a new baby who left birth
announcements and baby rattles at her husband's grave, then regretted it. Before the curators came, there was no way to give
items back.

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