On the seventh anniversary of the death of her son — a 25-year-old Marine killed when his helicopter was shot down in Iraq — Laura Landaker visited his grave at Riverside National Cemetery to find solace and mark his passing.
Instead, she found a construction zone.
Graves were being run over with heavy machinery, and the grass was pulled up to reveal raw dirt. Workers flipped over flat headstones with pick-axes.
“I was very upset at the sight of it … I felt as if I was starting from the beginning again with just dirt, no grass,” Landaker wrote in a Facebook post.
“Each one of those precious markers represents a loved one and their last resting place and they deserved more,” she wrote in a separate post. “Where is the respect that we should show them each day?”
Her son, Marine Lt. Jared Landaker, was one of a crew of seven who were killed when a U.S. military helicopter was fired upon and went down during a flight to Fallujah in 2007. The service members had only a week left in Iraq.
Jared Landaker, a Big Bear City native a University of La Verne graduate, was buried at Riverside National Cemetery about two weeks later, according to the Seven Stars Foundation, which was founded by his family to honor him and the other crew members.
At the cemetery on Feb. 7, as Jared Landaker’s friends and family were upset, seeing the gravesites so disturbed by workers.
“It was hard,” childhood friend Stacie Hernandez said. “It was already an emotional day, but to encounter that at the same time, it was very hard for all of us.”
The construction work was part of a multiyear renovation meant to beautify the site, a cemetery administrator told the San Bernardino Sun. The project was expected to be finished by Memorial Day.
The Landakers said that family members should be notified about the work so they’re not shocked when they arrive to visit loved ones’ graves. But the administrator said that with more 200,000 buried there, it’s not feasible for families to be informed, the Sun reported.
The family has called for change, asking their Congressman, Rep. Paul Cook for help. Cook, a Republican, said the family sent him “very, very graphic” photos.
Cook and Rep. Mark Takano, a Democrat whose district includes Riverside, has asked the Department of Veterans Affairs for a “dignity clause” for all national cemeteries — a way for cemetery administrators to be held accountable.
“That is one of the main responsibilities of the administrator. You can’t just pass it off to the contractor and say go ahead and do what you want to do and not pay attention to that very, very special thing,” Cook said.
His office did not immediately return a request for more information on Monday.
The Landaker has a “huge sense of relief” knowing others may never have to go through what they went through, Hernandez said.
For her part, Laura Landaker said that as she sat by her son’s grave after others left on Feb. 7, he spoke to her.
“I bet you would not expect to see my resting place in this condition today,” Landaker wrote, explaining what she heard from her son.
“But there is a reason you were meant to see it today more than any other day … You and I are closing the door on the last seven years of pain, being lost, and feeling so vulnerable and starting on a new journey together. You stand here a stronger, more confident woman, one I knew was always there. All the pain and joys of the last seven years are your foundation to the next seven years.”