James Speraw, a curator at the U.S. Army Center of Military History, holds up a set of dog tags left at a grave at Section 60, at Arlington.
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.