By John Rutherford, Producer, NBC News, Washington
Some of the families of the troops who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and buried in Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery are hopping mad at cemetery officials for taking and throwing away flowers, photos, medals and other mementos left at the graves of their loved ones.
Regina Barnhurst of Severna Park, Md., lost her 20-year-old son, Marine Lance Cpl. Eric Herzberg, two years ago in Iraq.
"These guys are 19 and 20 years old," she said in an interview. "They're our babies, you know, and we have to do the birthdays, we have to do the anniversaries, we have to do the special things.
"That's our way of honoring them and - sorry, I get really emotional about this - but it's our way of trying to come to terms with the fact that we don't have our sons anymore, and I think it's very wrong of them to just take things and throw them away."
Paula Davis of Gaithersburg, Md., whose only child, Army Pvt. 1st Class Justin Davis, 19, was killed in Afghanistan in 2006, said leaving mementos is part of the grieving process.
"I think it's disrespectful to just toss things like that," she said, "especially when you know they're very meaningful to the individual that left them there."
Tom Barbieri, also from Gaithersburg, lost his son, Army Spc. Thomas Barbieri II, 24, two years ago in Iraq.
"Section 60 has become our wall, you know, like the Vietnam Veterans Wall, where mementos and other artifacts have been left," he said. "It's upsetting to know that they just come in and do a clean sweep."
The sister of a soldier buried in Section 60 said some families have taken to burying their mementos.
"If you want something to stay, you don't leave it on the stone," she said. "You bury it and hide the evidence."
I asked John Metzler, Arlington's superintendent, to explain the cemetery's policy. He referred me to the cemetery's floral regulations, which call for the removal of flowers "as soon as they become faded and unsightly."
As for the other items, he said, "We do save service medals and religious items and obvious items of value that our crews find each week before the mowers cut the grass. All items are turned over to my historian."
I asked Metzler if the items are catalogued and kept in a warehouse like those left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
"I am sorry we do not have the same staff or storage capability as the National Park Service to do a warehousing project like the Vietnam Wall," Metzler said. "He has them in storage boxes in his office."
Not so, says Gina Gray, the former public affairs director at Arlington.
"The historian has about '30 items,' (his quote) from his 30 years there, things he picked up on his own," she said. "We were directed to throw all of that stuff away."
Regardless of where the mementos end up, they're no longer where they were originally placed - at the graves of the fallen - and that deeply disturbs the families.
"It's just sad, disheartening," Regina Barnhurst said. "This is not right."
(Photos courtesy of Christopher Levy)
1. Army Pvt. Tan Ngo, 20, of Beaverton, Ore.
2. Army Sgt. David Cooper, 25, of Williamsburg, Ky.
3. Army Spc. Michael Gonzalez, 20, of Spotswood, N.J.
4. Army Spc. Carlo Alfonso, 23, of Spokane, Wash.
5. Army Spc. Jorge Nieve, 26, of Queens Village, N.Y.
6. Army Spc. Steven Fitzmorris, 26, of Columbia, Mo.
7. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Joshua Harris, 36, of Lexington, N.C.
Washington Producer John Rutherford is a decorated Vietnam veteran. He also posts stories on the military at www.fieldnotes.msnbc.com (click on "John Rutherford" under "categories") and at http://john-rutherford.newsvine.com. The tribute gallery can be found at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22802019/.