For families of war dead, a final choice Citing pride in service, more opt for burial at Arlington Cemetery

By Glenn Maffei
Courtesy of States News Service
31 December 2004

ARLINGTON, Virginia – Having just learned their son was killed in Iraq, Penelope and Chris Gavriel had a lasting family decision to make: They could bury him 500 feet from their Massachusetts home, in Haverhill's Linwood Cemetery, or nearly 500 miles away in Arlington National Cemetery.

Initially, the couple disagreed. Penelope wanted Marine Lance Corporal Dimitrios Gavriel's grave to be in Arlington, across the Potomac from the nation's capital. Her husband preferred Linwood.

”It was different to me because I like to be close to him, close to his memory,” Chris Gavriel said. But in the end, he deferred to her wishes: ”We'd rather have him there among his other fallen friends.”

As war rages in Iraq and Afghanistan, a higher percentage of families of American service members killed have made the choice to bury loved ones in Arlington National Cemetery instead of a private or national cemetery close to home — more than during any other US military conflict since the 1950s, according to Arlington's website and a 1977 media account.

While the vast majority still chose another burial site, 8 percent of the 1,300 killed in Iraq as of last week had been interred in the nation's most historic cemetery, along with 9 percent of the 153 who died in Afghanistan. Those burial rates in Arlington are about double those of the Vietnam War.

Military historians attribute the cemetery's appeal to the solace found in the tradition of honoring war dead and veterans at a place where generals are buried next to privates because the military considers its own to be equal in death.

The parents of 21-year-old Marine Lance Corporal Brad Shuder found themselves 2,800 miles from home last July for the wartime burial of their son.

Shuder's mother, Rosemary, said choosing Arlington over a local cemetery in El Dorado Hills, California, was hard, but it was what they believed their son would have wanted. When he was a boy visiting Arlington on an eighth-grade field trip, she said, her son was mesmerized.

”Brad is still in this home with us. The spirit of Brad is not in Arlington,” Rosemary Shuder said. ”Brad died for his country. The place of honor is in Arlington. And so that's where that part of Brad is. But there are many parts of Brad.

”Whether we kept him in California, or we put him in Michigan where he's originally from, or he went to Arlington, the spirit of Brad is still in this home.”

Service members who end up in Arlington come for different reasons. Before he was killed, Army Captain Russell Rippetoe of Arvada, Colorado, taped a note to his locker that read, ”I want a military funeral, and I want it to be my people.” On rare occasions, there is a group funeral, such as when remains of five soldiers from the First Engineer Battalion who were killed by a bomb in Iraq last March were buried together in a single grave.

Arlington, home to more than 290,000, ”is where we bury our heroes,” said the cemetery's historian, Tom Sherlock. ”If you say Arlington National Cemetery anywhere in the United States, people are going to know what you're talking about. There's a comfort in that.”

With the Arlington burial, a benefit for which all active-duty service members are eligible, the Gavriels, too, said farewell to their 29-year-old son earlier this month amid a constellation of perfectly aligned white markers standing over the graves of service members killed since the Revolutionary War.

But more often than not, families make a different choice.

Some, like that of Army Captain Matthew August, a Kingston, Rhode Island, native killed in Iraq last January, choose the West Point Cemetery at the US Military Academy in New York. To be buried there, a service member must be a West Point graduate and either career military or on active duty. Since 2001, seven service members from the war in Iraq and two from Afghanistan have been interred there.

Others, like the family of Lance Corporal Alex Arredondo, a Norwood native who was killed in Iraq in September, choose burial in a private cemetery closer to home. He was interred in Walpole's Rural Cemetery.

Still others, like the family of Private First Class Norman Darling of Middleborough, who was killed in Iraq in April, choose one of 217 national and state cemeteries for veterans. He is buried in the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates 11.5 percent of all eligible veterans choose to be buried in national cemeteries other than Arlington.

When Richard Dvorin of East Brunswick, New Jersey, lost his son, Seth, an Army second lieutenant, the choice of burial in Marlboro Memorial Cemetery in New Jersey meant the 24-year-old soldier remained close to family.

”I pass the cemetery where Seth is buried almost every day. I stop in there to see him a couple times a week,” Richard Dvorin said. ”It keeps him alive in my heart and my mind. I talk to him; we have our private conversations.

”Nobody bothers me, nobody listens to what I say, it's just between Seth and myself. Could I ask for more, other than to have my son alive?”

Still, Arlington has been more often requested as a burial site during the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Four years after US forces withdrew from Vietnam, about 2,000 service members, or 4 percent of 56,342 killed, had been buried in Arlington, according to an Associated Press report from 1977. Of the 241 Marines killed in the Beirut barracks bombing and 19 US troops who died in the invasion of Grenada, both in 1983, 16 rest in Arlington. In the 1989 US invasion of Panama, 23 service members were killed and only one was interred in Arlington. And of the 382 who died in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, 25 are in Arlington.

Terrorist attacks have led to unusually high interest in an Arlington burial. Of the 184 people who died in the 2001 attack on the Pentagon, 64 were buried in Arlington.

Arlington National Cemetery administrators have not computed burial rates for the Korean War or World War II, when tens of thousands of American casualties were buried in Europe or the Pacific.

Last year, there were more than 6,000 burials at Arlington. In recent years, there has been concern the cemetery would run out of burial space, but the transfer of 44 acres of adjacent military land is pending and could extend capacity to 2060.

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