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Security increases at Henri-Chapelle Cemetery

EDITOR'S NOTE: Glenn Bronson shares this letter he received from the American Battle Monuments Commission in response to a letter he sent to his congressman about vandalism at Henri-Chapelle Cemetery, Belgium.

This letter responds to your inquiry on behalf of your constituent, Glenn Bronson, who expressed concern about the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Belgium. We have received several similar letters and welcome the opportunity to clarify some of the impressions that appear in those letters and tell you what we are doing to monitor and address the situation.

Many have asked that we build a fence around the cemetery, believing that Henri-Chapelle is the only American Battle Monuments Commission cemetery not secured by fencing and gates at night. That is not so. Our Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery near Verdun has a public road running through it that makes the cemetery accessible to the public 24 hours a day and our Normandy American Cemetery is accessible from Omaha Beach 24 hours a day. Walls or hedges less than four feet high that are easily crossed surround many of our other cemeteries.

Yes, we experience occasional incidents of vandalism and inappropriate behavior in our cemeteries, but our cemetery superintendents work closely with local authorities to address those incidents when they occur — which leads to another misperception many have about the land on which our cemeteries set.

That land is not sovereign U.S. soil. Host nations granted use of the cemetery lands to the U.S. in perpetuity and free of rent and taxation, but law enforcement remains the responsibility of local authorities. The key is frequent and close coordination between our cemetery staffs and those authorities.

The ABMC superintendent at Henri-Chapelle recently informed our European region office that more frequent police patrols of the public road running through the cemetery property are beginning to limit the presence of undesirable elements.

Some also believe that the cemetery plot areas suffer from rampant desecration, painting a picture of motorcycles driving through the rows of headstones and of offensive behavior occurring on gravesites. The activity the superintendent reported occurred at or near the overlook that is across the public road from the cemetery plot areas. We have no evidence that vandals or miscreants are desecrating the graves of our honored war dead.

Our experience elsewhere demonstrates that fencing is not the solution to controlling behavior at the cemetery. Those so inclined can easily scale the walls and fences that surround most of our cemeteries. Those walls and fences delineate and architecturally accent the cemetery property, but they are not vandal-proof security barriers. Nor do we want to create a fortress appearance.

The Commission is embarked on an effort to increase visits to our cemeteries by American and foreign citizens. We want the public to feel welcome to visit, not deterred. The basis for a solution is building bridges of understanding and strong relationships between our cemetery and the community that surrounds it.

The active engagement of Mr. and Mrs. Schmetz and others is evidence that such relationships are developing around Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery. Partners in this bridge building effort are the local government authorities including the police.

Our embassy in Brussels also is engaged in insuring the safety of our personnel who live and work on the cemetery. With their help, and with input from local authorities, we are installing additional security measures. We are adding motion-sensitive lighting, signage, and landscaping features such as hedges and chains to Henri-Chapelle AC, tactics used successfully at other cemeteries.

I assure you that we all take as an honored trust our responsibility to care for America's war dead buried overseas and to continue to honor their competence, courage, and sacrifice. These sites are shrines to those we honor there and to our national values. People worldwide respect our commemorative sites as being among the best-maintained facilities of their kind, and we will not allow those standards to slip. We are confident that reinforcing existing security measures combined with the increased law enforcement efforts at Henri-Chapelle reported by our superintendent will reduce inappropriate behavior at the cemetery.

Michael G. Conley

Director of Public Affairs, American Battle Monuments Commission

Courthouse Plaza II, Suite 500

2300 Clarendon Blvd.

Arlington VA 22201