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Soldiers gravestones inscribed with war slogans


The gravestones of fallen Americans buried at Arlington National Cemetery during the Iraq war era show a change in style from earlier conflicts.

“It just seems a little brazen that that’s put on stones. It seems like it might be connected to politics.”

— Jeff Martell, owner of Granite Industries of Vermont

This is disgusting. You cannot escape Bush propaganda even when you’re six feet under after serving in an irresponsible, unnecessary war.

Unlike earlier wars, nearly all Arlington National Cemetery gravestones for troops killed in Iraq or Afghanistan are inscribed with the slogan-like operation names the Pentagon selected to promote public support for the conflicts.

Families of fallen soldiers and Marines are being told they have the option to have the government-furnished headstones engraved with “Operation Enduring Freedom” or “Operation Iraqi Freedom” at no extra charge, whether they are buried in Arlington or elsewhere. A mock-up shown to many families includes the operation names.

The vast majority of military gravestones from other eras are inscribed with just the basic, required information: name, rank, military branch, date of death and, if applicable, the war and foreign country in which the person served. Families are supposed to have final approval over what goes on the tombstones. That hasn’t always happened.

Nadia and Robert McCaffrey, whose son Patrick was killed in Iraq in June 2004, said “Operation Iraqi Freedom” ended up on his government-supplied headstone in Oceanside, Calif., without family approval. “I was a little taken aback,” Robert McCaffrey said, describing his reaction when he first saw the operation name on Patrick’s tombstone. “They certainly didn’t ask my wife; they didn’t ask me.” He said Patrick’s widow told him she had not been asked either. “In one way, I feel it’s taking advantage to a small degree,” McCaffrey said. “Patrick did not want to be there, that is a definite fact.”

…Since 1997, the government has been paying for virtually everything inscribed on the gravestones. Before that, families had to pay the gravestone makers separately for any inscription beyond the basics. It wasn’t until the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 that the department instructed national cemetery directors and funeral homes across the country to advise families of fallen soldiers and Marines that they could have operation names like “Enduring Freedom” or “Iraqi Freedom” included on the headstones.

VA officials say neither the Pentagon nor White House exerted any pressure to get families to include the operation names. They say families always had the option of including information like battle or operation names, but didn’t always know it. “It’s just the right thing to do and it always has been, but it hasn’t always been followed,” said Dave Schettler, director of the VA’s memorial programs service.

Former Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam and headed the Veterans Administration under President Carter, called the practice “a little bit of glorified advertising.”

“I think it’s a little bit of gilding the lily,” Cleland said, while insisting that he’s not criticizing families who want that information included.

…Gregory C. Sieminski, an Army officer writing in a 1995 Army War College publication, said the Pentagon decision to call the 1989 invasion of Panama “Operation Just Cause” initiated a trend of naming operations “with an eye toward shaping domestic and international perceptions about the activities they describe.”

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding