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New burial site at Arlington National Cemetery to hold fragmented remains

Volunteers for Wreaths Across America place wreaths at thousands of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery, Dec. 13, 2014. The mission of Wreaths Across America is to remember fallen heroes, honor those who serve, and teach children about the many sacrifices made by veterans and their families.

ISRA PANANON/U.S. ARMY

By JESSICA WEHRMAN | The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (Tribune News Service) | Published: March 23, 2015

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Right now it’s a patch of green tucked in a corner of Arlington National Cemetery.

But in the months to come, an Ohio lawmaker’s vision of a resting place for the unidentified fragments and unclaimed remains of soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and future conflicts will become a reality.

Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Upper Arlington, began pushing for a “Place of Remembrance” in Arlington National Cemetery after reading news stories about the Dover Air Force Base mortuary sending cremated veterans’ remains to a Maryland landfill. A 2011 Washington Post story reported that between 2004 and 2006, a total of 976 fragments from 275 military personnel were incinerated and sent to a Maryland landfill.

Stivers was appalled. He says all fragments of fallen service members — even the smallest — deserve a dignified burial site.

His proposal was not intended to replace the Tomb of the Unknowns — a tomb that includes the remains of one unidentified service member as a symbol for all unknown service members — but to give fragmented remains of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and all conflicts moving forward a proper burial.

“This will be a working place of remembrance where additional fragmented remains can be buried for years to come,” he said. “Every piece deserves a dignified resting place.”

Now, the designs of that place are nearing completion. Arlington National Cemetery will begin advertising to award a contract in mid-May. The cemetery aims to award a contract by late summer and begin construction by early fall.

Stivers, who toured the site last week, said he was told it will be operational by next spring or summer.

When it’s completed, the site will be reminiscent of a cairn — a pile of rocks known as a traditional type of tomb. Underneath the cairn, a humidity-controlled vault will hold the cremated remains. Above it, those visiting can sit on a bench with a full view of the site and the graves that lie beyond it.

The site is in an undeveloped area of the cemetery near the columbarium — a wall holding cremated remains of other veterans.

Stivers, who has served nearly 30 years in the Ohio Army National Guard, said after The Washington Post story, the Defense Department changed its policy so future fragmentary remains would be scattered at sea. That’s appropriate, perhaps, for those who served in the Navy, but not as comforting for soldiers, who follow the principle of never leaving a fallen comrade behind.

This site, he said, will provide an alternative.

His proposal was first pushed as legislation. Ultimately, Arlington National Cemetery agreed to move forward without it becoming law.

Stivers hopes the families of missing servicemen and women might find the site a place of solace.

“I don’t pretend it will be like President Kennedy’s grave or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” he said “But if families can have a place to go and sit and remember their loved ones, that would be great.”

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©2015 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

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