ROSS TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — A family of a fallen soldier from Kalamazoo is demanding answers after decorations on his grave at Fort Custer National Cemetery were unexpectedly thrown away.
Diane and Joe Melwiki, the mother and stepfather of Army Staff Sgt. James Kohl Jr., decorate his grave each year for the holidays. Then about two weeks ago, they went to the cemetery near Battle Creek to find those decorations and the ones left at other graves on Lot 4A had been removed. They found them in a pile.
“There were plastic dumpsters all in a row. There were just big piles of other people’s, other Army soldiers’ wreaths, Christmas ornaments broken on the ground, American flags strewn on the ground, as well. These are people that gave their lives for this country,” Joe Melwiki said. “It was hard to see that. It really was.”
The Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration, which oversees Fort Custer, says Christmas wreaths and seasonal decorations may be placed at graves from Dec. 1 through Jan 31, at which point they are removed.
The Melwikis said the removal happened without warning on Jan. 7. They said they never got a straightforward explanation.
“The story I was told (was that) someone was coming in from the government, someone I’m assuming that oversees all the national cemeteries, and for some reason, the person who runs this particular cemetery wanted all holiday decorations off the graves,” Joe Melwiki said.
“It’s more disheartening, I think, to think that somebody thinks they have the right to just take it when it’s not theirs. It just means so much to me as a mother,” Diane Melwiki said.
A Washington-based spokesman for the VA told News 8 in a statement that “items that impact the cemetery’s ability to preserve the dignity and appearance of the cemetery or its safe operation” would be removed but that they would generally be kept for 30 days so families could come get them.
“Each VA national cemetery allows visitors to place floral arrangements and other seasonal items on gravesites to commemorate and honor those interred while balancing requirements to operate and maintain cemeteries as national shrines and to provide a safe environment for visitors and employees. Items that impact the cemetery’s ability to preserve the dignity and appearance of the cemetery or its safe operation will be removed upon discovery. As a courtesy, removed prohibited items that are in good condition are held by the cemetery for 30 days, and staff will assist families who request to retrieve these items. We encourage families who have questions regarding Fort Custer National Cemetery’s floral policy or need assistance in retrieving decorations from a gravesite to contact cemetery staff directly at (269) 731-4164.”National Cemetery Administration
The Fort Custer cemetery director told News 8 that no one from his staff moved anything.
Wreaths Across America, a nonprofit that lays wreaths at veterans’ graves, says it’s possible one of its volunteers mistakenly removed the decorations during a cleanup event earlier this month — though a spokesperson for the group couldn’t say for certain that was the case.
The Melwikis said they hope it was a one-time mistake. They were able to recover their decorations for future use.
“This, to us, is a sacred place,” Diane Melwiki said. “If you follow the rules and do the things that you should and you’re supposed to do here, don’t take our stuff.”