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Special mementos left at Arlington are in Army's painstaking care

By Larry Shaughnessy, CNN
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Special mementos for the fallen
  • Most fallen soldiers of current wars are buried in Section 60
  • People leave personal mementos, including cans of beer and hot sauce
  • Army making effort to ensure the mementos don't end up in trash

Arlington, Virginia (CNN) -- It may surprise the casual visitor at Arlington National Cemetery to see a rubber duck on a headstone or an old football helmet lying in the manicured grass of a fallen soldier's grave.

After all, America's most hallowed ground is the final resting place for war heroes, astronauts, even a U.S. president.

But it happens all the time, especially in Section 60, where many of those killed in the current wars are buried. Leaving a flower arrangement is still common. And many graves have tiny American flags placed on them.

But this new generation of warriors are frequently remembered with mementos like cans of beer, teddy bears and even tiny bottles of hot sauce. The message in the mementos is unknown but likely very personal.

"I have seen everything from report cards to an Alabama football ticket stub," said Roderick Gainer, a curator with the Center of Military History.

"Obviously, these deceased service person was a Crimson Tide fan. Letters, hotel keys. I've seen jewelry, lots of things."

Gainer is part of a new effort by the Army to make sure these items don't end up in the trash.

For the first time the Army, which runs Arlington National Cemetery, is collecting many of the items left on the graves, cataloging them according to what grave they were left on and storing them for posterity.

Before this effort began late last summer, most of the items were thrown away. Some cemetery employees tried to gather some special mementos, but no record was kept about what graves those items came from.

Now, curators from the Center of Military History are making sure a thorough record is kept.

"We are going by, grave to grave, on a weekly basis recovering items that have been left and then we basically put these items into a database and photograph the grave," Gainer said.

Read about the demanding work of Arlington's burial crews

Then the mementos are put into plastic bags with a note card with the date of collection, the fallen service member's name and the grave number. Not everything is saved. Perishable items like food or flowers are left on the grave. But if a note is attached, it's collected and saved. A plain pebble on top of a headstone will be left alone, but if someone has written or painted something personal on the stone, it will be saved.

They even save some of the empty beer and liquor bottles that often turn up next to the headstones. And on some graves, like that of Pfc. Kenneth Zeigler, nothing is disturbed. Zeigler's mother asked the Army not to collect anything off his grave and the curators gladly respect her wishes.

There was a case where some items were collected from a grave, but the family didn't want the items moved, so the center returned the materials to the family. The curators also pay attention to when the materials are left. If they are birthday cards and a birthday is approaching, they will usually leave them. But if the birthday has passed, they will collect them.

While Gainer does this job every week, some things still get to him.

Like a poem left on Cmdr. Phil Murphy-Sweet's grave that reads:

"In Arlington, a small white stone there,

a small white stone, three little pebbles,

an inscription, and a patch of green grass.

That's where he'll stay.

He should be home laughing with kids or still serving his country.

But instead, he stays there."

The poem is signed "Jeanne and Lelila Musgates." But it's unclear why it was left on Murphy-Sweet's grave. Were they relatives, friends or just patriotic Americans who wanted to remember a fallen soldier?

Once the poem and all other mementos have been collected, catalogued and saved, the Army secretary will decide what will be done with them.

They may become part of a museum exhibit. Or maybe, someday, a historian will go through them to teach about the two wars.