Hallowed Grounds for Controversy Waiver Dispute Focuses Attention on Rules for Burial at Arlington National Cemetery

By Stephen Barr Washington Post Staff Writer Tuesday, December 23, 1997

More than 250,000 veterans, their families and other distinguished Americans are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, the U.S. military’s most hallowed grounds. The veterans served in conflicts from the American Revolution through the Persian Gulf War and Somalia.

But Arlington, which averages 5,000 funerals a year, is running out of space. About 70,000 burial sites are left in the 612-acre cemetery that overlooks the Potomac and the District, and the Army projects they will be gone by 2025.

The shrinking space led to tighter rules in 1967 for determining who gets the honor of an Arlington burial. The restrictions also set off a steady, though relatively small, demand for waivers to the rules. Last month, as evidence increased that Democratic campaign donor and late ambassador M. Larry Lawrence, who had received one of those waivers, had fabricated World War II Merchant Marine service, the outcry among veterans showed that many did not know exceptions to the rules were allowed.

“I never knew that diplomats were buried there,” said Ed Kueppers, 61, of St. Paul, Minn. Said Tom Wagner, 66, of Dallas, “I don’t think all veterans understand the rules.”

Determining who deserves an Arlington burial requires a close reading of restrictive federal regulations and the knowledge that unwritten procedures exist to grant special consideration. Getting that honor also may depend on a family’s willingness to seek out members of Congress, the White House or the military services for help in interpreting the rules or in justifying a waiver.

Now, House and Senate veterans affairs committees are investigating whether the rules should be tightened once again. The last restrictions, in 1967, were prompted by concerns that aging World War II veterans and a new generation of Vietnam War veterans would soon fill the cemetery. Until then, the cemetery was open to all members of the U.S. armed forces and former members who had received honorable discharges.

The 1967 rule change restricted ground burials to military personnel who died on active duty, career military retirees and holders of the highest military awards, such as the Medal of Honor, the Silver Star or the Purple Heart. Other burial categories included family members of veterans, nationally elected officials with military backgrounds and Supreme Court justices who had served in the military.

Other veterans can have their remains cremated and placed in the cemetery’s columbarium complex. About half the funerals at Arlington involve cremated remains.

There is no charge for a grave or columbarium niche, or for a government headstone or marker. Families pay for other costs, such as preparation of remains and transportation.

John C. Metzler Jr., the superintendent at Arlington, acknowledged there are no published guidelines for the granting of exemptions, but said he relies on past practices and that his decisions are reviewed by Department of Army lawyers and officials.

He said he receives about 20 waiver requests each year, and about half are approved. “There are very few of them granted,” he said. “There are only a handful of people who receive waivers and have no military service…. It is something that has been managed very well by the Army for over 30 years now.”

Congressional Republicans, however, plan to scrutinize nine cases in which Metzler, a career civil servant, recommended against granting a waiver but Army Secretary Togo D. West Jr. disagreed and authorized the burials.

In the disputed cases, West said, the persons deserved Arlington internment because of their accomplishments or because of humanitarian considerations.

Army records show the Clinton administration has given special permission to 69 persons for burial at Arlington. Most waivers were approved by the Army secretary or acting secretaries; President Clinton authorized four. They were for Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall; the wife of retired chief justice Warren E. Burger, who was subsequently buried in the same grave site; a D.C. police officer killed in the line of duty, and a Drug Enforcement Administration agent killed in an airplane crash in Peru.

Other administrations also have granted exceptions. Sixty-one waivers were authorized under President Ronald Reagan, for example, with Reagan personally involved in 21 decisions. Of the 18 authorized during the Carter administration, President Jimmy Carter handled all but two, the records show.

Most veterans groups view Metzler, who served in Vietnam, as an honest broker when it comes to deciding who gets buried at Arlington. Metzler’s ties to the cemetery go back to the age of 4, when his father was named Arlington’s superintendent.

Metzler, 50, returned to live in the superintendent’s house on the Arlington grounds almost seven years ago, after a career at the Veterans Affairs Department managing several VA cemeteries.

In many cases, Metzler said, waivers are granted to families because “it just seems to make sense to help them out in their time of need.”

A typical case involves a family where the veteran has already been buried at Arlington and a family member has just passed away. Metzler asks if the deceased relative served in the military, whether a casket or urn will be used, and whether the deceased was married or has siblings who might later petition for burial, too.

A number of cases over the years have involved remarried widows of veterans who want to be interred in the same graves as their first husbands. Such cases usually involve children wishing to reunite their parents, and the second husband often consents because he was a family friend or served with the veteran buried at Arlington, Metzler said.

Virtually every case has to be decided on its own, and circumstances change with the passage of time. Metzler notes the case of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

“When Mrs. Kennedy married Mr. Onassis, she lost her entitlement to be buried with the president, once she had a second marriage. But when the second marriage ended with the death of Mr. Onassis, then Mrs. Kennedy reverted back to her former eligibility, and when she did pass away, she was not married. So she was buried without any special consideration,” Metzler said.

Increasingly, he said, families ask for permission to bury unmarried adult children with veterans. In a few cases, the records show, unmarried children have died before the veteran and burial has been permitted, provided the veteran or service member agreed in writing to be buried at the same site.

The typical Arlington grave site is 5 feet wide, 10 feet long and 7 feet deep. The site accommodates two stacked caskets with two inches of soil between them.

The more difficult waiver cases involve burials that would take space from a future, qualified veteran. If the person has no military service, then family or friends must demonstrate that the person’s life involved acts of national or international importance, Metzler said.

Metzler said he also looks to past practices and for examples of similar waivers.

In the Lawrence case, Metzler said he recommended the late ambassador for a waiver based on the information available at the time. A strong factor in his decision, he said, was Lawrence’s death at his post in Switzerland. Lawrence’s alleged Merchant Marine service had given him an edge for Arlington because it conferred wartime status. After the controversy flared up, Lawrence’s family removed his body from Arlington and reburied it in San Diego.

Not all ambassadors receive a waiver for Arlington. The late Daniel J. Terra, the Reagan administration ambassador-at-large for cultural affairs and the 1980 finance chairman for Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign, was denied an Arlington burial because no records were available to show military service and because he did not die in office, officials said.

As part of their investigation into Arlington waivers, Republican lawmakers also will likely ask whether President Clinton promised a plot to a living person, a highly unusual break with past practices. Administration officials identified the person as C. Everett Koop, the Reagan administration surgeon general who has joined Clinton’s anti-tobacco campaign.

Veterans groups predict the GOP hearings will tighten the exemption process and lead to a requirement for some type of public notification when a waiver is granted.

For many veterans, the importance of Arlington cannot be overstated.

James H. Webb Jr., the novelist, Vietnam veteran and former secretary of the Navy, jogs through the cemetery almost every day, near where he buried his father, a World War II bomber pilot, earlier this year.

“It was the greatest honor that I could bestow on him, to be in that particular place. It meant an enormous amount to me and my family,” Webb said.

Arlington Burial Rules

Burials at Arlington National Cemetery are restricted to specific categories of honorably discharged members of the U.S. armed forces. The general categories are:

* Military service members who died while on active duty.

* Military retirees with at least 20 years of active duty or active reserve service and those retired for disability.

* Veterans honorably discharged for 30 percent or more disability before Oct. 1, 1949.

* Holders of the nation’s highest military decorations, such as the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Medal, Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, or Purple Heart.

* Service members who had been prisoners of war or missing in action.

* The spouse or unmarried minor (under 21) of any of the above.

* An eligible person’s unmarried adult child with physical or mental disability acquired before age 21.

* The president, as the armed forces’ commander-in-chief.

* Cabinet officials, Supreme Court justices, members of Congress and nationally elected officials, provided they have an honorable military background.

Veterans who do not meet these requirements may qualify for inurnment in the cemetery’s columbarium complex, which houses cremated remains. Any honorably discharged veteran, spouse and dependent children may be inurned in the same family niche at the columbarium.

Any other burials or inurnments must receive a waiver from the cemetery superintendent, the secretary of the Army or the president.

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