Iraq Dead Ahead

Go, tell the Spartans, stranger passing by
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

Epitaph on the Cenotaph of Thermopylae, Simonides of Ceos

Cambodia 1970

The first dead American I ever saw was black. Third platoon had perimeter guard. Second platoon walked into an ambush. We followed a truck to the tree line. It was cold and muddy­his body was wrapped in a poncho­we helped pass the corpse hand over hand, like a fire brigade, as if the corpse were a bucket. But dead weight is hard to handle when it’s not stiff­the steam was rising from his jungle fatigues, a hard rain was beating, his eyes were not blinking­it was the saddest sight I’d ever seen.

Boston 1998

Midnight. We’ve been at the bar since 8pm. It feels like a lifetime, sitting at this dark wood table. Andy, a bloated ex-marine, lucky to be alive, is drinking himself to death. The Colonel, trim, jut-jawed, with Special Forces in Laos in1970, taps his ring finger as storm clouds fill his sun tanned face. Tall, powerful Chris, shot in the neck a week into his tour, quietly sips his beer. He’s modestly drunk and still shocked out. Larry, a fierce gentleman-scholar despite his murderous glare, survived a battle so bad he put it this way, “The sun came up and the smoke cleared and the dew burned off. There was meat all over everything. All around the perimeter it was meat. And the wood line…looked like ruined drapes.” (Black Virgin Mountain, Larry Heinemann, Doubleday, 2005)

I’m sitting next to Bao Ninh, one of several North Vietnamese Army veterans. He drinks whiskey, occasionally knocks the shots back, chain-smokes Camel cigarettes. Someone asks Ninh, “What was your saddest memory?” Ninh takes a long drag, exhales, peers into the upcurling blue fog, waits, and matter of factly says, “To find and bury my friends.” Chung, our interpreter, continues to translate. After combat Ninh helped snare the dead with poles, and hauled them away. Ah, I think, so that’s why we never found as many as we thought we’d killed. For a time no one speaks. Then the mood changes, the conversation picks up, but Ninh stays silent.

In the opening chapter of Bao Ninh’s book, The Sorrow of War, it’s 1976, a year after the liberation of Saigon. The main character, with other NVA veterans, scavenges the jungle for human remains in the Forest of Screaming Souls. For the Vietnamese, the spirit cannot rest until the entire corpse is buried. Ninh spent six years fighting the Americans. Out of five hundred, only ten members of the Glorious 514th Youth Brigade lived. Maybe that explains his other worldly silence.

The Americans in Vietnam brought their dead to GR Point (let MIAs and BNRs be a story for another day). At Graves Registration, intact or ruined bodies, and collections of body parts (often of one man, sometimes mixed up) were prepped for shipment home. Gruesome work­the task drove some men crazy. It is said that heroin was secretly stashed inside military caskets headed back to the United States.


Fast forward to present American battles. The hard work of body retrieval and preparation is artfully called Mortuary Affairs. Marine Jason Cotnoir, an undertaker by trade, describes the archeology of harvesting the dead: “There were the remains of four or five guys spread out over six hundred square yards. We had to walk a grid. It was just like a police scene…there are thousands of these flags in the field, and it’s just surreal knowing that all those flags represent something. ….Everything got treated as reverently as if it were a whole body. Even if it was just a leg or an arm or, God forbid, a hand or, you know, a torso…everything got treated the same.” (What Was Asked of Us: An Oral History of the Iraq War by the Soldiers who Fought It,” Trish Woods, Little Brown, 2006). Back at the base, teams make horror whole so that dumb struck kin may grieve in peace.

In 2005 John Holley learned that his son, Matthew Holley, a medic with the 101st Airborne, had been killed in Iraq by an IED, and would return home as freight. In fact, since 2002, many KIA caskets were placed in the cargo bays of commercial jets. Once landed, forklift operators dispatched the gleaming metal coffins to warehouses and grieving next of kin. As if the dead were luggage, and the families did not deserve respect.

Outraged, John Holley complained to his congressman, then-House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif and to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. The outcome: a January 2006 law which assures that US military personnel killed in Iraq or Afghanistan are returned on military or military-contracted aircraft. An escort and a white gloved arrival honor guard are mandatory. (Families may request commercial airlines, which may also be used when remains are sent outside the United States). The initial six month switch to charter jets, run by Kallita Charters, will cost the Pentagon an extra $10 million dollars. A minuscule sum compared to the billions spent thus far. There’s a dark nexus between the Pentagon’s cthonic cost cutting and the funeral industry’s shameful past.

The American Way

In 1963, Jessica Mitford blew the polished walnut lid off the secretive burial business, with her legendary book, The American Way of Death. Blending formal prose with tart irony, she unmasked the unkind efforts America’s funeral makers employed to obtain maximum profit from the bereaved. Mitford investigated the elegiac scams of gratuitous embalming (in most cases not necessary or lawfully required), double charging for services, or charging inflated prices for grooming, dressing, patching up or otherwise prepping the dead. She detailed how naive or vulnerable clients were pressured to buy outrageously marked-up coffins, the habitual false or misleading statements made by funeral directors adept at exploiting those stricken by grief (ie; inexpensive cremation-bad, costly ground burial-good).

As well, Mitford illuminated the interconnected nether worlds of cemetery owners, casket, vault, and monument makers, and the flourishing trade of eternal florists. She profiled the titan funeral industry as fearful of politicians, church officials, or anyone seeking a dignified but low priced funeral. In many states it’s lawful­just as it was common place a hundred years ago­to privately transport the deceased in a home made casket, and bury them. The book became a best seller. Congressional hearings were held. Regulations favoring consumers were passed. The Federal Trade Commission’s “Funeral Law,” written in plain English, is an indispensable guide to caring for the dead. It can be viewed here.

History of Arlington National Cemetery

In 1862, with Civil War losses near Washington, D.C. mounting, and many grieving families being too poor to retrieve their kin, the Arlington House estate, owned by Robert E. Lee and his wife Mary, was seized by the government for failure to pay property taxes. In 1864, Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs took the land, located across the Potomac River in Arlington, Virginia and put it to use as a military cemetery. He hoped to render the estate unsuitable if Lee chose to return. Lee never came back, but years later an heir sued, won, and sold the land to the government. At the wars conclusion, sixteen thousand soldiers were buried at Arlington. By today’s standards the early funerals of American war dead were immodest: Headstones made of wood. Misspelled names. Many of the killed in action (or by disease, the greatest killer of all) were simply unknowns. Reform was gradual. See the Army’s Mortuary Affairs web site at>
Arlington et al Today

The burial site of choice for many veterans, with over one hundred burials per week, and approximately 290,000 burials to date, Arlington is run by the Department of the Army. Due to demand there may be delays of up to three weeks in scheduling a burial. About seventy-thousand burial sites remain on the six-hundred-twelve-acre cemetery. The Army surmises they will be gone by 2025.

The Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) administers one-hundred-twenty-five national cemeteries in thirty-nine states (and Puerto Rico) and thirty-three soldier’s lots and monument sites. For additional information regarding VA administered national cemeteries see>

The eligibility criteria for burial at Arlington is several pages long. A partial list of those veterans entitled to interment at Arlington are: active duty soldiers (except those on active duty for training only), career veterans retired from active service, retired Reservists at age sixty drawing retired pay and who served on active duty (other than for training), veterans honorably discharged before October 1, 1949 for medical reasons and rated at least 30% disabled at discharge, veterans awarded one of the following: Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross (Navy Cross or Air Force Cross, Distinguished Service Medal), Silver Star, Purple Heart, and ex POWs who, as prisoners, served honorably, received an honorable discharge, and who died after November 30, 1993.

Although many persons believe Arlington is exclusively for active duty KIA or veterans, it is also the final resting place for various diplomats, war widows/widowers, high elected officials, members of the Supreme Court, and distinguished explorers, literary, medical, and other historical figures. As in life, outside the hallowed range of imposing granite monuments, and beneath the peaceful winding rows of engraved marble planks, there is controversy . More on that anon.


The deceased veterans estate, next-of-kin or a personal representative must contact Arlington (703-607-8585) and provide the appropriate documents to verify the veteran’s eligibility for interment (ground burial) or for inurnment (burial or storage of ashes) to Arlington staff, who may help determine eligibility. Verification by Arlington may take up to three business days. A copy of the veterans discharge document, known as a DD 214, in which service is described as “honorable” or “under honorable conditions” is acceptable. The phrase “under honorable” should not be confused with “less than honorable.” As well, according to Army Regulation 635-200 (effective January 19, 2004) 3-7 (b) a General Discharge is equal to an Honorable Discharge. Upon verification of eligibility, the cemetery staff will schedule the interment. Any documents requested by the cemetery staff can be faxed to (703) 607-8583.
Making Arrangements

Next of kin or a personal representative must contact a local funeral home to arrange for body storage prior to shipment to Washington, D.C. They must inform the funeral home director to contact the Interment Office at Arlington National Cemetery ­ (703) 607-8585 ­ to request a casket or urn service. The local funeral director will contact a funeral home in the Washington, D.C. area for airport pick up of the remains. The receiving funeral home will keep the casket in storage until the appointed funeral day. At that time the receiving funeral home will transport the casket to Arlington National Cemetery for burial. The local and receiving funeral homes will likely contact National Mortuary Services or Inman Shipping Worldwide. Both are respectable companies. Cremated remains can be mailed or hand carried to a local funeral home for shipment to Arlington on the day of the funeral or up to three working days in advance. For active duty service members, all costs are paid for by their branch of service. Otherwise all storage and shipping charges are paid for by the family or estate of the deceased. According to the official Arlington National Cemetery web site, “Grave sites/niches are assigned the afternoon on the day before the interment service.”

Down and Dirty Work

In 1967, due to projected overcrowding, Arlington burials were limited by Army regs to combat wounded or KIA, highly decorated veterans, retirees with 20 years of service, high government officials with military service, and immediate family members of eligible vets. Soon after these hard and fast rules were implemented, the use of waivers began. Partial records indicate that until 1994, less than a dozen exceptions a year were made. However, during the 90s, investigations by the Army Inspector General and the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations revealed numerous cases of political favoritism. For the most part the press ignored the story. However the 1996 case of a former US Ambassador to Switzerland made national head lines. A major Clinton campaign funder, Larry Lawrence had lied about his military service, claiming to have been wounded in combat as a Merchant Marine in W.W.II. His widow, Sheila Davis (alleged by Arianna Huffington to have dallied with Clinton), was compelled to remove the body and bury it elsewhere, at her expense. But rule exceptions continued the odd or arbitrary admittance to Arlington by non military, unqualified military, or apparently undeserving military personnel.

Arlington’s official web site states: “The purpose for an Exception to the Interment/Inurnment Policy is to permit those who are not otherwise eligible under current policies to ask for special consideration. Please note, exceptions are only approved for those requestors whose facts merit extraordinary circumstances and whose approval will not ordinarily displace an otherwise eligible Veteran.” The rhetoric sounds right but leaves room for abuse. One hopes, as did Rep. Terry Everett, former chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, that Rep. Bob Filner, the present committee chairman, will seek to end waivers, and limit burial at Arlington to qualified veterans and their immediate families.

Military Honors, Preferences, Shortages

Standard military honors are accorded by rank. Arlington will contact the deceased’s branch of service and arrange for enlisted honors when requested. These include: pall bearers, a firing party, a bugler.

Likely an old British custom, after slain soldiers from both sides were dragged off battlefields during cease fires, the opponents fired three volleys to signal that fighting could resume.

Taps was composed in 1862 by the Union Army’s Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield. In the absence of a bugler, the melody was tapped out on a drum. Today, due to limited valveless bugles, Taps at Arlington is often played on a valved trumpet or coronet. A 1999 law requiring Taps if requested at VA cemeteries, resulted in a shortage of buglers. Veterans service organizations issued Taps CDs. In national cemeteries across the country undignified boom boxes sounded the mournful call. With Pentagon help, S&D Consulting of Manhattan designed a small battery operated device. Tucked into the bell of a facsimile bugle, activated by the press of a switch, the electronic automated horn has been well received.

At Arlington, a military chaplain will conduct the service unless the family prefers its own minister, who must be assigned by the family or the funeral home. Certain E-9s may be entitled to other honors given their branch of service.

As well as the above, Commissioned and Warrant Officers are granted a caisson, band, and escort troops by Arlington if requested. For Army and Marine O-6 and up, a riderless horse, a symbol of the fallen warrior, is provided. For Flag Officers, the Minute Guns and Gun Salute are supplied. In cold weather the full band may not play but honors are performed.

Most veterans are entitled to one burial flag. Requests must be made at the time of need. Flags are furnished by VA regional offices and most U.S. post offices after VA Form 21-2008 is filed and submitted with a copy of the veteran’s DD 214 to either location.

Grave liners, external cement containers in which caskets are placed to reduce post burial grave sinkage, are provided free of charge.

A white marble tombstone or white niche cover, with appropriate inscription and faith symbol, will be furnished free. Arlington staff will place the order. The recent addition of the Wiccan pentacle brings to thirty-eight the number of allowed religious symbols, among them: Sufism Reoriented, The Church of World Messianity, Eckankar, Humanist Emblem of Spirit, and Soka Gakkai International. It takes ninety to one-hundred-twenty days after the service for the tombstone or niche marker to be installed. Next-of-kin can check the status of the order by calling 1-703-607-8577 during Arlington’s business hours.

A Standard Burial Service

When there is no contact with the enemy, no sudden bursts of machine gun fire, no shouts or howls from gun shot men or women­I have known such howls, I have known such screams­when shrieking rockets, crump-BANG mortars or fiery IEDs do not sing their shrapnel songs, when there are no pulsing crimson streams or shiny mounds of gut-gore spillage, a patrol, jungle or urban, take your pick, is a grueling, nerve wracking affair which never ends soon enough.

By contrast, the standard military honors burial at Arlington is a solemn, disciplined, dignified affair. Family and friends gather at grave side. Dress uniformed pall bearers carry the flag draped casket to the grave, lower the immaculate casket to place, grip the flag taut over the coffin while a chaplain speaks. Next, the officer in charge issues precise commands: Three quick volleys are fired by seven riflemen. There is the dolorous playing of taps, there is the crisp hypnotic folding of the flag, the chaplain steps forth, presenting it to the next-of-kin. “This flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation as a token of our appreciation for the honorable and faithful service rendered by your loved one,” he will say. And some will swell with pride, and some will clench tight jaws or fists, and some will break and weep. Throughout, at appointed times, civilians place hands to hearts, soldiers raise hands to visor brims. Finally, an Arlington staff member will offer condolences to the bereaved, and announce that the service is done; civilians are bid to return to their cars. On average thirty minutes have passed.

Talkin’ Head Stone Generation

This writer called Arlington National Cemetery in April 2007. The innocuous query put to staff was, “Has the government ever engraved Operation Iraqi Freedom on the tombstone without family consent?” The expected reply was swift and courteous. “Oh no, sir. We’ve never done that. That has never happened. The family has to ask before we do anything.” Some say that’s not always the case. Some feel slogans on gravestones are improper.

Two years ago, in an AP story, Robert McCaffrey stated, “I was a little taken aback. They certainly didn’t ask my wife; they didn’t ask me.” Or his son’s widow. Patrick McCaffrey was killed in Iraq in June 2004. The undesired epitaph was neatly etched on his burial stone.

Prior to the invasion of Iraq only the name, rank, service branch, dates of birth and death, and nominally, the specific war and country were listed on the head stones of our war dead. Until 1997 families paid the stone makers for added mementos. Today it’s all free. In fact, four years ago, VA told all national cemetery and funeral home directors to inform Iraq or Afghanistan KIA next-of-kin that the tombstone epitaphs “Enduring Freedom” or “Iraqi Freedom” were available at no cost. Those interred at Arlington were eligible as well.

Accordingly, at Arlington and VA national cemeteries a display stone is exhibited to the bereaved. Next-of-kin then decide what military campaign is or is not etched on the upright slab. The majority of post 9/1l Arlington tombstones contain one or the other campaign phrase.

Former Senator, Vietnam veteran and past VA chief Max Cleland, while respectful of KIA family, has said, “It’s a little bit of glorified advertising.” Jeff Martell, who owns the Vermont company which sculpts the granite markers, stated, “It just seems a little brazen that that’s put on stones.” For its part the VA feels it’s not a marketing stunt. “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,” Department of Veterans’ Affairs spokesmen Steve Munor has said. Other VA officials have stated that neither the White House nor the Pentagon were behind the new chthonic choices and families have the right to opt out. The director of the VA’s memorial programs service, Dave Schettler, has stated, “It’s just the right thing to do and it always has been, but it hasn’t always been followed.

Robert McCaffrey would agree. “Patrick did not want that to be there, that is a definite fact,” he said.

MIA=Missing in Arlington

Many tree memorials dot the hallowed hills and dales of Arlington. Among the honored, officially listed by name, section and species are the My Lai massacre tainted Americal Division­Section 34, Red Maple, the fervently slaughtered Indigenous People (Native Americans)­Section 8, Eastern Cottonwood, and the gutsy Professional Lawn Care Association of America­Section 13, Rose Garden.

Among the least well known are twenty-one Special Forces cadre, KIA in El Salvador, their names not etched on a small grim stone near a white oak, located in Section 12, a forlorn parcel of ground easily overlooked. The back story is not pleasant:

In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan secretly authorized hundreds if not thousands of Green Berets to advise and fight alongside the brutal Salvadoran Army in that country’s horrific civil war. According to Knight-Ridder, so secret was the American presence in Central American operations that ‘body washing,’ which originated during Vietnam, was employed.

“If a guy is killed on a mission,” said an ex covert operative, “And if it was sensitive politically, we’d ship the body back home and have a jeep roll over on him at Fort Huachuca,” an obsure Army intel base. “Or we’d arrange a chopper crash, or wait until one happened and insert a body or two into the wreckage later. It’s not that difficult.” Indeed, the Washington Post quoted retired General Joseph Stringham, a Special Forces commander in El Salvador in 1983-84, as saying, “It had been determined this (El Salvador) was not a combat zone, and they were going to hold the line on that. I’ve puzzled over why.”

Thanks to Regan’s anti-communist rhetoric and co-ordinated attacks on investigative journalists (see Ray Bonner’s dispatches on El Mozote), to a tight lipped Pentagon, and to Washington’s inbred careerism, the El Salvador cover up endured.

However in 1996 President Clinton signed into law the Defense Authorization Act, which forced the Pentagon to award Expeditionary Medals to U.S military who served in El Salvador.

A “Sixty Minutes” broadcast also shed light on the once secret affair. A military service was finally held in 1996. The anonymous honorific reads, “El Salvador 1981-1992. Blessed are the peacemakers. In sacred memory of those who died to bring hope and peace.” In El Salvador, the jailed, tortured, or eighty-thousand civilian dead might disagree.

Dulce Et Decorum Est

It is good and fitting to give Mike Bonaldo, featured in “What Was Asked of Us” the last word on the soldiers way of death: “There was a pink cloud that came up after the explosion from all the blood that was in the building. You know, because there were at least two dead insurgents and the blood of marines…so there was a lot of blood in the building.”

Memento Mori

Complete details regarding eligibility, service arrangements, and post funeral benefits are at the official Arlington web site:, from which material for this article was drawn. Click here for the website of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Arlington afficionado Michael Robert Patterson has assembled a roster of alleged abuses of Arlington waivers at

MARC LEVY was an infantry medic with the First Cavalry Division in Vietnam/Cambodia in 1970. Decorated once for gallantry and twice for valor, he was twice court-martialed and received a General Discharge. His work has been published in various print and online jounals. He can be reached at



Marc Levy’s books include How Stevie Nearly Lost the War and Other Postwar Stories and The Best of Medic in the Green Time. His website is Medic in the Green Time. Email: