Cathy Dyson writes about King George County. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dignified ceremony held at landfill memorial
More than 250 people, including many wearing military uniforms and motorcycle helmets, attended a memorial service Sunday at the King George Landfill that was both dignified and emotional.
Local residents and out-of-town guests gathered on a grassy bank in front of the landfill entrance. Most of the 80 white chairs set up in front of the makeshift podium were filled and at least twice as many people stood.
They were there to honor hundreds of service members, who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and whose partial cremated remains were disposed of like medical waste—then dumped in the King George Landfill.
Richard Lorey, a King George citizen who led the effort to erect a bronze plaque in their memory, paraphrased Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and said “we must never forget what happened here.”
Lorey, a Navy veteran, warned the crowd that he tended to get emotional—then got choked up during introductory remarks.
He said that as word got out about the citizen effort to honor those killed in the war on terror, responses and donations came from throughout Virginia and 12 sates. He even heard from an American student in Spain.
People often asked why he wanted to place a memorial at a landfill.
“My answer is we do it to honor the fallen,” Lorey said. “What happened here is a tragedy, but to do nothing would just compound the tragedy.”
The ceremony started precisely at 4 p.m. with the rumbling of almost 30 motorcycles. Members of the Virginia Patriot Guard and American Legion Post 89 in King George rode to the landfill entrance, passed the brown trash bins and rode out. Riders and bikes then formed “The Wall of Flags” behind the audience.
Photographers from several TV stations in Richmond and Washington, along with those from area newspapers and military publications, formed a line of cameras similar to what’s seen at a White House press conference, but on a smaller scale.
King George High School’s band played the national anthem, and student bugler Patrick Gatewood gave a stirring rendition of “Taps.”
Retired Army Capt. Leslie Smith, who lives in King George, was the guest speaker. She talked about the one element common to all military branches: Never leave a comrade behind.
She said King George would not have allowed Dover Air Force Base to dump the partial remains in the landfill, had county or Waste Management officials known anything about the practice.
She said the memorial “is our chance to make a wrong a right” and to provide the dignity the service members deserve.
Pastor Michael Ramming read a letter from New Jersey Congressman, Democratic Rep. Rush Holt, praising one of his constituents, Gari–Lynn Smith. Her persistent questioning of Department of Defense officials led to the discovery that hundreds, perhaps thousands of service members had partial remains dumped in the landfill, Holt said, including those of her husband.
In his letter, the Congressman said that Smith, along with King George residents, had helped turned the landfill from an “ignoble place” to “holy ground.”
When Gari–Lynn Smith was introduced, some in the audience, especially members of American Legion Posts 89 and 329 in King George, stood.
She talked about the mixed emotions she faced, that never in her dreams would she have imagined a landfill as the final resting place of her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Scott R. Smith.
“I can’t help but think this never should have happened,” the New Jersey woman told the crowd.
One of the few things that comforted her, after her husband was killed by an improvised explosive device in 2006, was that his remains would be treated with the respect they deserved.
She said there was no greater tragedy a government could do than disrespect the sacrifice of her husband and others.
She broke into tears as she closed her remarks with, “Scott, I love you. I miss you everyday. I know you deserved more than this, and I hope I have made you proud.”
At that point, everyone in the audience stood.