Arlington National Cemetery works to fit in recent victims of wars

Arlington National Cemetery is quietly coping with the additional workload of providing a final resting place for the remains of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Superintendent John Metzler Jr. says his staff has added early morning, midday or late-afternoon funerals to the daily schedule of more than two dozen funerals in order to accommodate services for GIs lost on distant battlefields.

Authorities have cleared the way for mourning families to spend more time at grave sites and to honor lost loved ones with special tributes outside the regimented practices of graveside military honors.

The personalized tributes have included bagpipers and graveside statements by comrades who were with the soldier when he or she died.

“Our goal is never to rush the family,” Metzler says.

Of the more than 2,960 GIs killed in Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003 and the 296 U.S. military personnel killed in the war to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan since the U.S. invasion in 2001, the remains of 335 casualties lie in Arlington National Cemetery.

The 624-acre cemetery contains the remains of veterans from every major American conflict back to the Revolutionary War.

“We look for off-hours to squeeze the additional services into our normal workload,” Metzler said in an interview in his office overlooking some of the 230,000 white headstones standing row-upon-row across rolling fields on a hill overlooking the nation's capital.

Metzler says it often takes more time to plan funerals for GIs who have died unexpectedly in Iraq or Afghanistan.

“The families are just starting to digest what has happened,” Metzler said. “They start to express their special needs as we get closer to completing the schedule and arrangements for the service.”

Scheduling can become complicated when families press to have their loved ones buried quickly but with all the military honors to which the GI was entitled by rank.

“Families do not want to take any shortcuts,” says Metzler, 59, a native of Brooklyn, New York, who served as an Army helicopter crew chief during the Vietnam War and has served as Cemetery Superintendent since 1991.

The cemetery's day-to-day schedule is devoted to long-scheduled funerals for veterans other than battlefield casualties. The cemetery adds the remains of 6,600 individuals each year. It now holds the remains of 306,000 people — including veterans, spouses and former federal officials led by Presidents John F. Kennedy and William Howard Taft.

Metzler says funeral parties attending graveside services for GIs killed recently in Iraq and Afghanistan often linger at grave sites after presentation of the American flag to next-of-kin, the playing of taps and the gun salute.

Arlington funerals are governed by military tradition:

— Officers are entitled to full military honors, including a service at Fort Myer's Old Post Chapel, a horse-drawn caisson, escort troops, a military band, a graveside firing party and a bugler for taps.

— Enlisted personnel qualify for a casket team, a firing party, a bugler and a chaplain.

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