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The Stories Behind The Symbols On Vets' Headstones

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Many Americans will visit national cemeteries this Memorial Day weekend to reflect on the lives and sacrifices of our nation's service members. There are stories behind every single grave. And from Portland, Ore., Deena Prichep reports that there are also stories behind what's carved into the granite and marble itself.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: Willamette National Cemetery has a certain somber order - row after row of markers laid into the hillside with the same stone, the same font, the same wars.

LINDA CAMPBELL: You think of it being so uniform, and yet each of those people has their own heart and soul and desires and fears, and you've got a lot of different lives laid to let rest on this hill.

PRICHEP: Linda Campbell is a veteran of the Air Force and National Guard. Her parents are buried here under a stone marked with a cross. And when her own wife, Nancy Lynchild, was dying a few years ago, they sat down together to pick out a marker.

CAMPBELL: We looked at all of the 50 or so symbols that we could choose from, and neither of us were particularly drawn to any of them.

PRICHEP: So Linda asked Nancy what symbol she would like.

CAMPBELL: And she says, oh, maybe a bicycle. And I said, you know, I don't think they're going to go for that.

DON MURPHY: In 2009, a process was put in place. If an emblem that next of kin wanted inscribed on a headstone was not available, then they could make a formal request to the VA to have their emblem added.

PRICHEP: Don Murphy spent two decades with the National Cemetery Administration. The VA's list now has 61 symbols, ranging from crosses to a swirling atom to the hammer of Thor.

MURPHY: If the list continues to grow, that is fine. The VA does not question the individual belief system of any eligible veteran or their spouse or dependent.

PRICHEP: There are a few requirements. The icon must be dignified and has to lend itself to being carved in stone, but beyond that, the definition of belief is fairly broad. And according to military chaplain Nickolas Gaines, more and more, that's how belief is.

NICKOLAS GAINES: We say, OK, what religion are you? What faith are you? But I think that we are moving away from that. People are saying, I don't identify with the sacraments and rites and beliefs of a various denomination. I still love God and the divine influence is how I live my life.

PRICHEP: Gaines works with new recruits at boot camp and 90-year-old veterans. And he says that at any age, service members are figuring out how to live their beliefs as they deal with some pretty big questions.

GAINES: What's going to happen to me when I die? The Bible says thou shall not murder, and I've done that in combat. Will God forgive me for that? You know, if everything is according to God's will then it was God's will for my friend to die, but not for me?

PRICHEP: The answers to those questions don't necessarily take the shape of a Latin cross or star and crescent. For Linda Campbell and her wife Nancy, it's a sandhill crane. Campbell petitioned to have it added to the list and now the dancing bird is carved into the stone that someday they'll share.

CAMPBELL: It's just a beautiful symbol of wisdom and protection and a happy marriage. I wanted something that represented us and something we could believe in and be proud of and be glad to spend eternity with.

PRICHEP: And so will other veterans. Three hundred sandhill cranes have been requested since this first one, emblems of the love and freedom and belief for which so many veterans served. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep in Portland, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.