Marie-Laurie Warren and Bobby Bell stand among the graves at the Cambridge American Cemetery, Madingley, England.

Marie-Laurie Warren and Bobby Bell stand among the graves at the Cambridge American Cemetery, Madingley, England. (Ron Jensen / S&S)

MADINGLEY, England — Marie-Laurie Warren makes little of her role as the first woman to hold a job as assistant superintendent at an American Battle Monuments Commission overseas cemetery.

“It’s just worked out that way,” said Warren, 28, a former soldier and mother of four daughters.

She’d rather talk about her job, which she started in August, at the Cambridge American Military Cemetery.

“The ABMC has a sacred mission,” she said.

The commission was created after World War I to care for the graves of America’s dead from that war. Gen. John Pershing served as its first director.

The ABMC now maintains cemeteries in England, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Tunisia in the European region. Other cemeteries are in the Philippines, Panama and Mexico.

In all, nearly 125,000 graves are under the commission’s care.

Following each world war, family members were given the choice of leaving their loved one buried overseas or returned to the States.

Already, Warren has helped next of kin find graves at the cemetery, presenting them with a visitor’s packet.

“To them, it’s not a headstone that has to be cleaned,” she said. “It’s a person who missed a life.”

The well-manicured cemetery and the military bearing of the rows of 3,812 crosses and Stars of David always impress them, Warren said.

“They walk away with a good feeling that he or she is being well taken care of,” she said.

Two British women recently visited — one to visit the grave of a husband and the other to visit the grave of a fiancé.

“They remember their loved one as he was — young and handsome and a dashing officer,” said Warren, who was born in West Africa to missionary parents. “It’s really a rewarding part of the job.”

Warren’s boss is also a newcomer to England. Bobby Bell arrived in the summer to take the superintendent reins after serving as assistant superintendent at cemeteries in the Netherlands and France.

“We see a lot more Americans here,” he said.

That wasn’t true on the Continent.

“If I heard an American voice in the visitors center, it was a surprise — a pleasant surprise,” he said.

But his current job is within a 40-minute drive of about 10,000 American servicemembers stationed at RAF Mildenhall, RAF Lakenheath, RAF Alconbury and RAF Molesworth.

Bell, 48, conducted a nonscientific survey using the cemetery’s guest register and estimated that about 40 percent of the cemetery’s 100,000 visitors each year are Americans, most of them active-duty people serving in the area.

“That’s wonderful,” he said. “As a fellow American, it makes me feel good.”

Since arriving at the Cambridge cemetery, he’s been impressed, he said, with the way the American military community in England embraces the cemetery as a part of it.

Recently, he said, several airmen from RAF Molesworth spent a day cleaning some of the cemetery’s markers on the graves of America’s dead from World War II.

An Air Force brat, Bell served four years in the U.S. Navy. He has worked in the American military community in Munich and Vilseck, Germany, spending some of that time with the Army and Air Force Exchange Service.

He joined the ABMC in 2001 as an assistant at The Netherlands American Military Cemetery in Margraten, the Netherlands. Before coming to England, he was assistant superintendent at the Somme American Military Cemetery at Bony, France.

Despite the current numbers, Bell hopes to increase the American visitation at the cemetery. He plans to visit the schools on bases to encourage more visits by students.

Bell said the families who chose to leave their loved ones buried in faraway lands were promised by the government they would be looked after.

“The U.S. has not failed to follow through on that promise,” he said.

Now working in his third country for the commission, Bell has seen the look Europeans have when they enter an American cemetery for the first time.

“They see what we do to honor our war dead, and it raises their appreciation [of America],” he said. “One thing we don’t cut corners on is how we honor our war dead.”

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