Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Looking for My Father

My father, a World War II veteran (he was a member of the famous Merrill's Marauders that fought in China, Burma, and India), died unexpectedly in July 1990 at my home in Arlington, Virginia. He is buried, with a son and unnamed infant daughter, at Arlington National Cemetery. The Army gave him what is described as modified military honors, that is, a funeral service of military honors lacking only the horse-drawn caisson. The day Dad was buried, marked by the 21-gun salute and Taps (it was not canned, then, but played for real by the bugler), was one of the saddest of my life, tempered only with the knowledge that my father was interred in the most prestigious cemetery in America.

Over the years, I've visited often, at all seasons of the year, Dad's gravesite, which is in a somewhat old part of the cemetery on a hillside from which there's a splendid view of Washington, D.C. Oddly, the grass in this particular place seems not to thrive, though that fact makes the ground no less hallowed. The road that winds through his section is named after "Black Jack" Pershing.

When the first news stories* broke about the extraordinary, deplorable mismanagement of the cemetery, the misplaced remains, the paper records unreconciled to gravesites, I became concerned and went online, first calling up the Nationwide Gravesite Locator from the cemetery's site. That locator, on the site of the Department of Veterans Affairs, is intended to help find the burial sites of veterans. Unfortunately, it is limited to interments and inurnments "after 1999", according to the cemetery's site. The VA site, amazingly, indicates that no information is available for burials "prior to 1997". It advises contacting the specific cemetery if erroneous information is found or "more complete" information is desired. I just wanted any information associated with Dad's grave.

I found other possible search tools —,, and several others — to learn whether my father's death and his associated gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery are documented anywhere other than in the obituary I placed in 1990 in The Washington Post. Unbelievably, even my searches using my father's Army serial number and other information I have about his Army service returned only "No Results were found for your search." A site called Archives claimed to have a death record and 25 "possible matches" but "no exact matches". I decided not to pay to read something that was only "possible".

I was able to find readily an electronic record for the Arlington Cemetery gravesite of my brother, who pre-deceased my father;  he had lived only about eight months, dying in March 1956. His record (added by a private citizen, a Find-a-Grave member with a deep interest in cemetery documentation) lists the section number and site number in Arlington Cemetery, which, presumably, because my infant brother is buried with my father, is the same information that should be available for my father's grave. I have never been able to find documentation of any kind of the burial of  my infant unnamed sister who is in the same grave.

I sent correspondence, via e-mail, to Arlington Cemetery, explaining my findings and asking for clarification about the cemetery's own information about my father. To this day, I have never received a response to that communication, which is dated August 6, 2010.

Last week, when two of my sisters from out-of-state were visiting, I took them to Arlington so that we could place flowers on Dad's grave and say a prayer. To say we were not expecting what we found is a gross understatement. From the bottom of the hillside, looking up, we saw more than a half-dozen gravestones covered in black plastic garbage bags, one or two others in clear plastic. It seemed a stunning way to say, these graves are not really here. We made our way up the hillside in the rain that was falling lightly. The headstone we remember being on a grave to the left of our father's is no longer there, though the tuft of grass that tends to gather around the headstones remains. The ground on that hillside clearly has been disturbed, sloped differently from what we remember. We realized how disturbed when one of my sisters, intent on finding our father's headstone, took off her shoes and stepped into the area. Because of how deep my sister's feet sunk in, we surmised something had happened here, and it was not the "Turf Renovation" indicated on a large sign we passed when we turned onto the street we always use to reach our father's gravesite. That ground appeared to have been dug up and then replaced.

It took us at least 10 minutes to find our Dad's headstone. If you can imagine my sister having to pull up and then re-lower black plastic garbage bag after black plastic garbage bag to find our father's name, you may be able to understand something of the panic we felt setting in. When my sister finally found Dad's headstone, she tucked the black plastic bag behind it, stuck the flower container into the ground and arranged the bouquet we'd brought. 

Across the street from that hillside is more evidence of disturbed ground, ground that on my last visit to Arlington contained graves marked with headstones. The area has been roped off. Pushed off to the side, clearly marking no graves now, are two very large granite headstones, not the typical simple and beautiful white ones that mark my father's and siblings' site and the majority of gravesites at Arlington; a set of three temporary markers lie in a clump on the ground. Can you imagine coming upon that, an empty space, when your intent is to visit your relative's grave, last known to be there? There are more such spaces around the cemetery. In some the headstones are covered with the ugly garbage bags; in others, some are and some aren't. There's nothing to indicate what's going on.

While we were placing the flowers, a family came to where we were standing and said they were looking for their relative's gravesite. They remember it as being in the same area as my father's. They continued looking, going away then some 10-15 minutes later returning to say they'd yet to find the grave.

My sisters and I left the cemetery in tears.

Now back home, my sisters are checking photographs of Dad's gravesite, from the bottom of the hill and closer up, taken years ago. I'll be checking mine, too, because, it seems to us, our father's headstone is not where we remember it. We hope those old photos and the new one taken last week match and thus prove us to have a faulty memory. I keep wondering: What if they don't? What if they show the headstone is now in a different place? And why has the cemetery been conducting what looks like excavating work without informing us? (I've never told my mother about the news stories and, because she lives with one of my sisters, I know she has never received any communication from Arlington about gravesite discrepancies.)

I have to say, although my father's spirit is in my heart, I'm not sure I can say with certainty anymore that I know where his body is, whether the gravesite I've visited all these many years since 1990 was his, was empty, or was someone else's but marked with Dad's headstone, his children's names on the reverse; or whether the grave where we placed our flowers last week has always been his but before was marked with someone else's name or never marked at all until recently.

A week since that visit, I still wonder about the garbage bags over headstones, the work going on on that hillside. I'd like to think Arlington National Cemetery has an explanation. But even if it does, how will I know its truth, for sure?

* Here's just one article. A search on Google will turn up many more.

From the homepage of the cemetery's site a list of news releases is accessible, among them: "Army Inspector General: Significant Progress Made at Arlington National Cemetery", September 2011. 


Glynn said...

My government can do a lot of appalling things. This, however, just rips it. I'm angry enough to send a letter to my congressman - who has a son serving in Iraq.

Glynn said...

OK, I was mad enough - I've sent a letter to my congressman with the link to your post. I'll let you know what I hear.

Louise Gallagher said...

Oh my dear Maureen, I am so very sorry to read of your family's pain.

There are few words that can even come close to what you must be feeling.

Reading this, I feel anger. I want to scream and stomp my feet and go pound on someone's desk and demand explanation.

But it seems, you've asked. Repeatedly. It seems, no one has heard you or no one cares enough to respond.

And that is so wrong in so many ways.

I wish there was something I could do to make them do the right thing.

I wish there was something I could do to ease your pain.

My love and prayers are with you my friend.

Hannah Stephenson said...

Oh my. This is shocking and very sad...sorry to hear of this.

Keep searching and hope more clues emerge.

Steve Gravano said...

Good idea Glenn, there's one going to my congressman was well.

Beverly Diehl said...

Not to denigrate your pain, loss, and confusions, because I can understand how upsetting this must have been - but our military is still struggling to do right by the men and women coming back maimed and injured from the Middle East, and before them, from Vietnam, and before them... That doesn't make it right - we should always honor and properly care for our veterans, in life and death. But the reality is, that's always been a goal, more than a reality.

I'm so sorry. (Daughter of WWII army veteran-father and Coast Coast veteran-mother, both now deceased.)

Maureen said...

I debated long about whether to write this post. I know efforts are being made to reconcile the gravesites. But it seems there is still gross insensitivity. I didn't expect to visit and find my father's headstone covered with a black plastic garbage bag. The entire situation left me and my sisters with all those questions. And because I never received a response to my initial query, I thought it would be a waste of time to write again.

Thank you all for your support.

Michael Ann said...

This is extremely upsetting and disturbing. I am so sorry you and your sisters are going through this. It secrecy, along with everything else, is what is disturbing. I hope some valid explanation is made, but it still doesn't explain why there was none in the first place. My father, who is a military veteran, will be buried there some day. This makes me very nervous. I will be following your updates here. I hope there some resolution and comfort for you and your family.

Anonymous said...

How sad and disturbing to you and your family. I encourage you to write to your congress person, it just doesn't seem right the way they are going about it. My father's gravesite is more than 3,000 kms from my home so I don't get to go there often but I was able to visit there last February. It is still intact in a lovely, cared-for cemetery. The Arlington National Cemetery association has a responsibility to keep families informed of any changes where their family member(s) are buried.

Kathleen Overby said...

Sometimes, the thing to do is to go pick a fight. You have some clout. Cyberspace has take down and build up. Sounds like this is one of those battles to choose to fight, or not. Condolences from here to your bruised heart my friend. You have our support.

Ann Tracy said...

so sorry to hear of this Maureen. I hope that your questions are answered soon.

S. Etole said...

It's difficult for words to convey the emotions I feel on reading of your experience. Hopefully good will come of this.

Ruth said...

This is very disturbing and it takes not trusting your government to a new level. It shows how important a "resting place" is. I, too, hope that your investigations will result in finding out more.