Army curator James Speraw stood by Spc. Christopher Coffland's grave, tucked among the rows of white headstones at Arlington National Cemetery, and read the inscription on dog tags that he cupped gently in his palms.
"I thank my God every time I remember you," said the tags. "We love you Chris, our brother."
Speraw had little time to ponder the 43-year-old soldier who was killed in Afghanistan. "8955," he called out to a fellow curator, who jotted that grave site number down. They took photos of the dog tags and placed them in an archival bag, part of a new trial effort to preserve graveside mementos at Section 60 — Arlington's primary resting place for the dead from the Iraq and Afghan wars.
The two then moved on to another grave to collect a teddy bear and blue stuffed bunny left for another fallen soldier. A few rows away, a backhoe pushed dirt over the grave of a service member buried minutes earlier, its loud, steady rumble punctuating the air in a sad refrain.
"It's an honor to do it, but you just really hate to see the graves," Speraw said, choking back tears.
Valentines to a rubber duck
Without a national memorial to the more than 5,300 service members who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, Section 60 has become its own community of remembrance. Thousands of mementos left at their graves stand testament to the grief of loved ones.
Crown Royal whiskey bottles, war medals, birth announcements, wedding photos, Christmas ornaments, GI Joe action figures, painted rocks, church bulletins, a fishing lure, even a rubber duck are among the items left at the graves of the more than 600 from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who are buried at Arlington.
Families gather for birthday parties for the fallen, leaving behind cupcakes and balloons. War orphans drop off handmade valentines. Twenty-somethings with crewcuts and military boots smoke a cigar and set an empty beer bottle next to a buddy's white grave marker.
It's created a quandary for Army officials who hadn't seen the phenomenon in past wars. What do you do with such items?
Unlike the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, where the National Park Service collects and stores such objects daily, Arlington is a working military cemetery with strict rules to keep it pristine. Because there were no collection procedures in place, most of the items left at grave sites simply ended up in the trash.
That changed in the early fall when the U.S. Army Center of Military History at Fort McNair in Washington quietly stepped in at the request of then-Army Secretary Pete Geren. Now, each Thursday, typically three curators in dark jackets carrying cameras walk through Section 60 to collect and catalog nonperishable objects left at the graves.
The project is a pilot, and it's unclear whether it will become permanent. For now, the 1,300 items collected so far are stored at Fort Belvoir, Va.
'We go meet daddy'
On a recent sunny Sunday, as she does nearly every Sunday, Nicki Bunting, 29, of Potomac, Md., loaded her two boys into her blue minivan for the cross-town journey to Section 60.
Her youngest, Cooper, was just 3 days old last fall when he paid his first visit to the grave of his father, Capt. Brian "Bubba" Bunting.
"We go meet Daddy," the Buntings' oldest son, 2-year-old Connor, chimed excitedly that day, his mother recalled.
She snapped a photo of Cooper next to the grave and left behind a blue "welcome baby" balloon.
Bunting's husband, a 29-year-old West Point graduate, died in a roadside bomb blast in Afghanistan on Feb. 24, 2009. He never knew Cooper was coming; Nicki Bunting learned she was pregnant a few days after her husband's death.
Other Section 60 families warmly greeted Bunting as she arrived on her latest visit. The sister of another fallen soldier kept an eye on Connor, as he played with a toy truck while Bunting sat by her husband's grave with Cooper in her arms.
It's a comfort to know curators are preserving some items she's left at the grave — like the balloon when Cooper was born and a card Connor made for his father on the anniversary of his death, Bunting said. She hopes they will be in a public exhibit to illustrate the lives of those who died, so they are remembered as more than just casualties of war.
"When they see a card left from a 2-year-old or a balloon left welcoming a son that they never met, I think that makes more of an impact," Bunting said. "It makes Americans a little bit more thankful or appreciative."
Paula Davis, 55, of Gaithersburg, Md., a single mother who lost her only child, Pfc. Justin Davis, 29, in Afghanistan in 2006, also goes to Arlington every Sunday. Before the curators started their project, she would scoop up items left by her son's Army buddies out of fear that they'd be thrown away. Among them: an infantry pin and a CD of music burned by a comrade.
"When you see these things, it means something that someone came by, that someone visited and they left something," Davis said, from a lawn chair by her son's grave. "You don't have a way of knowing that, if the stuff gets thrown away."
It's unclear what's next for the project, which is supported by many families but not all.
"Some people have talked to me and argued that the thing they want is this material to disappear," said Robert Dalessandro, assistant chief of military history at the Fort McNair center.
"What I've learned through the course of this project, what our whole team has learned, is that people grieve in different ways," he said.
The curators say they, too, have become emotionally invested. Most are current or retired military members and know people buried in Section 60.
At some point, possibly this summer, Army Secretary John McHugh will evaluate the work and determine the next step. The items could appear someday in museums or books about the conflicts.
For now, the historians are opting not to "accession" the material collected. Doing so means the items would forever become military property.
Instead, they have returned items to family members when asked. One family member was a widow with a new baby who left birth announcements and baby rattles at her husband's grave, then regretted it. Before the curators came, there was no way to give items back.