Thursday, August 19, 2010

Arlington National Cemetery - A Spectrum of Desecration

Arlington National Cemetery is considered one of America’s most sacred and hallowed grounds. We chose to have our son, USMC Pvt. Heath Warner buried there when he was killed by an IED on 11/22/2006. Having a loved one buried there is an honor and a sacrifice. When we entrusted our son to the care of this most honored cemetery, I would never have imagined, we would come to know the spectrum of desecration that exists and haunts the families of those who have loved ones buried there.

Desecration by Administration
We became aware of an investigation taking place in the summer of 2009 by friends within our Arlington community. It appeared to be an isolated situation and we were never notified of by the administration that it was more than that – an unmarked graved was discovered. On June 10, 2010, I received a phone call while I was at work from a reporter asking me to make a statement about the news conference taking place regarding the “final report”. I was stunned to find there were 211 graves identified and incidents of desecration. However, this past July I was contacted again to make a statement about the expanded investigation which estimated up to 6,600 graves may be mismarked. Since then we have learned the cemetery is not computerized and an archaic method of record keeping using three by five index cards to track the pertinent grave information.

In fact over the last three and a half years, we have never been contacted by Arlington administration. When HBO imbedded their production crew for a three month shoot for their special on the families of the fallen, we had traveled six hours to visit our son’s grave only to be surprised by a videographer. Within minutes of our walking up to Heath’s grave, we were caught off guard by being filmed upon our arrival to his grave. If we had been notified by the cemetery that this was taking place we could have at least been prepared or delayed our visit.

The reality is Arlington administration has no mechanism in place to communicate with the families of those buried at the cemetery. Since the investigation, families are referred to a call center that was set up this past June and staffed by civilians hired by the Pentagon. They communicate by reading scripts. The entire process is a desecration to our son’s sacrifice and our family.

Desecration by Workers
One of the most disturbing findings was that of the cremation urns found in a land fill area within the cemetery. Having lived through the experience of burying a loved one at Arlington, I still cannot comprehend how the employees who bury our loved ones could be so disconnected from the honor of their services that they could desecrate the cremated remains of our veterans by throwing them in a ditch. I can only imagine how carelessly they lower the caskets into the ground and throw the flowers on top only to move on to the next dig.

Over the years we have accepted the fact that the treasures left at the graves as tokens of love are routinely thrown away. However, it was not until we were visiting Heath’s grave on the second anniversary of his death that we witnessed first hand the desecration and disregard by the grounds caretakers at Section 60. We had arrived in the morning for a private memorial ceremony. We returned to the cemetery after lunch, to find the grounds in disarray. Wreaths, flower arrangements, pictures, tokens of loves were strewn throughout Section 60. We originally thought vandals had gone threw the graves. The reality was the grounds had been desecrated by powerful blowers and were left as we found them. Melissa and I tried to repair what we could and replace as best we could; however, we ended up calling the florist we use for Heath’s grave arrangements and she came out to help as she knew the graves better. She filed a complaint with Superintendent Mesler on that following Monday.

Desecration of Honor
Arlington National Cemetery has been known as America’s sacred grounds and reminds our country of the sacrificed lives for freedom. However, from the top administrator to the grounds keepers, from the journalist and even the tourist who visits these hallowed grounds as if attending a festival, there has been a comprehensive desecration of honor. It’s hard to watch and process. I have watched a disconnect by American’s from the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and I question if this is reflective in the treatment of our war dead. Recently, a friend forwarded to me a political cartoon by Mike Luckovich which is a parody of Abbot and Costello’s comedy of “Who’s on First”. The cartoon shows a newsstand at Arlington with a newspaper headline stating 6,600 graves mixed up before the entrance of Arlington National Cemetery. By the stand are Laurel and Hardy asking who is buried there? Who? Pathetically sad, but I do admit it gave me a very tiny chuckle, but the reality is so true. Families are left to wonder - is this my loved one’s grave?

My family has come to the conclusion that our son is heaven in a better place were we never have to worry about his care and that he is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. We may wonder, but maybe through sharing our story we can help restore the dignity that our loved one’s deserve and the tarnished reputation will be repaired and the desecration replaced with honor, valor and dignity that once defined Arlington National Cemetery.

Link to Mike Luckovich political cartoon

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