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Cleanup in Arlington National Cemetery’s Section 60 upsets families of war dead

A grave in Arlington Cemetery’s Section 60, which is dominated by the Afghan and Iraq war dead, although deceased veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam are still being buried there. Illustrates CEMETERY (category a), by Greg Jaffe (c) 2013, The Washington Post. Moved Tuesday, October 01, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Charlie Archambault.)

A grave in Arlington Cemetery’s Section 60, which is dominated by the Afghan and Iraq war dead, although deceased veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam are still being buried there. Illustrates CEMETERY (category a), by Greg Jaffe (c) 2013, The Washington Post. Moved Tuesday, October 01, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Charlie Archambault.)

Elizabeth Belle walked toward the grave of her son, carrying a canvas bag full of miniature pumpkins, silk leaves and other decorations for his headstone. Then she noticed the changes. Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, in Virginia, where more than 800 Iraq and Afghanistan war dead are buried, had been stripped bare. The photographs of young dead soldiers were gone. The balloons, too, and love letters, the sonograms and worry stones, the crosses and coins.

“They’ve taken everything,” Belle said.

Over the past weeks, a quiet transformation has taken place in Section 60, leaving family members of the dead feeling hurt, saddened and bewildered. Today, Section 60 resembles the quiet cemetery of an older generation’s war, not the raw, messy burial ground of one still being fought.

The changes began in August when cemetery officials decided that Section 60 should be subject to the same rules as the rest of the grounds. “The policy hasn’t changed,” said Jennifer Lynch, a spokeswoman for the cemetery. “The policy is the same, but the enforcement is different.” She said the cemetery was responding to complaints that the section had become too disorderly.

Most families discovered the change when they visited the grounds and found only tape marks where laminated pictures of their loved ones had been hanging for the last several years. Some of the mementos “deemed worthy of retention” were gathered by Army historians for storage at Fort Belvoir, according to a statement from the cemetery. Most appear to have been thrown in the trash.

Laura Hess, whose son, 1st Lt. R.J. Hess, was killed in April in Afghanistan, painted her son’s initials, a 10th Mountain Division patch and a Captain America shield on small stones over the summer and stacked them on his tombstone. “Painting the stones and leaving them there was a way of unloading all of this grief,” Hess said.

Those stones are now gone, too. Hess said she has no idea if they were “deemed worthy” of storage at Fort Belvoir or thrown in the trash by the maintenance crews. “They never let the families know,” she said. “I would have driven there immediately and collected my things. It is so hard. It is just not right.”

The cemetery’s executive director is planning to meet with families Sunday to discuss the new enforcement approach. The cemetery’s advisory board, meanwhile, “is wrestling with these issues as they develop and recommend a permanent policy,” said Lynch. “The fact is that Arlington National Cemetery is not the Vietnam War Memorial or the World War II memorial – it is a functioning cemetery, and we must remain true to that mission.”

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