The idea of a dump-side memorial was born soon after reports emerged that mortuary workers at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, the country's main point of return for service members killed abroad, had disposed of ashes from military personnel in the Virginia landfill.
The ashes reportedly came from body parts recovered from battlefields between 2004 and 2008. Most could not be identified, although some were traced by DNA analysis to individuals. The families of those service members gave the Air Force permission to dispose of the fragments but were not told they would be cremated and then mixed with medical waste for disposal in a landfill.
The revelations sparked outrage on Capitol Hill, and the military now buries such ashes at sea. But in the community around the landfill, the episode provoked some deep thinking about how to add a measure of dignity to a chain-link enclosure that boasts none of the solemn shade of Arlington or the rolling, tombstone-covered fields of Gettysburg.
Lorey, the veteran who lives near the landfill, said the scandal was a hot topic at both his local tea party group and his American Legion post. Many people immediately wanted to see whether the remains could be removed and buried elsewhere. But Lorey, a retired chemist who worked at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in nearby Dahlgren, Va., knew the ashes were beyond retrieval.
"We couldn't undo what had already been done," Lorey said. "But we thought the least we could do was get a plaque."
Small donations from the community quickly added up, and after the project was featured in an edition of Waste Recycling News, Lorey began to get envelopes from as far away as Texas and New Hampshire.
"I would open an envelope and there would be 10 or 20 dollars, just cash, no note," he said. "I got to where I was in tears every time I walked up to the mailbox."