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.”
The owner of the company that has been making gravestones for Arlington and other national cemeteries for nearly two decades is uncomfortable, too.
“It just seems a little brazen that that’s put on stones,” said Jeff Martell, owner of Granite Industries of Vermont. “It seems like it might be connected to politics.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs says it isn’t. “The headstone is not a PR purpose. It is to let the country know and the people that visit the cemetery know who served this country and made the country free for us,” VA official Steve Muro said.
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.
VA officials say they don’t know how many families of the nearly 2,000 soldiers and Marines who have died in Iraq or Afghanistan have opted to include the operation names.
At Arlington, the nation’s most prestigious national cemetery, all but a few of the 193 gravestones of Iraq and Afghanistan dead carry the operation names. War casualties are also buried in many of the 121 other national cemeteries and numerous state and private graveyards.
The interment service supervisor at Arlington, Vicki Tanner, said cemetery representatives show families a mock-up of the headstone with “Operation Iraqi Freedom” or “Operation Enduring Freedom” already included, and ask their approval.
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.
“Most of the headstones out there at Arlington and around the nation just say World War II or Korea or Vietnam, one simple statement,” he said. “It’s not, shall we say, a designated theme or a designated operation by somebody in the Pentagon. It is what it is. And I think there’s power in simplicity.”
The Pentagon in the late 1980s began selecting operation names with themes that would help generate public support for conflicts.
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.”
Mainline veterans groups are taking the change in stride. American Legion spokesman Donald Mooney said the organization hasn’t heard any complaints from its members.
“I’m concerned that we do what the families want,” said Bob Wallace, executive director of Veterans of Foreign Wars. “I don’t think there’s any critical motivation behind this.”