Decay at Arlington Cemetery Dismays Lawmakers

Friday, May 21, 1999

A hole the size of a basketball hoop in the ceiling of the chapel. Buckling sidewalks at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Broken flagstones at the columbarium.

Arlington National Cemetery's maintenance problems came under scrutiny on Capitol Hill yesterday as House members expressed dismay over the condition of the nation's premier military burial ground.

“There has been too much deferred maintenance,” said Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.), who visited Arlington on Wednesday and said he was shocked at what he saw. “It makes me feel ashamed.”

The hearing by the House Veterans' Affairs subcommittee was called to examine maintenance issues and the growing lack of space in the nation's 100-plus military cemeteries. In particular, staff members spotlighted the toll that 4.5 million visitors to Arlington each year are taking on the
hallowed hillsides.

Arlington Superintendent John C. Metzler Jr. acknowledged that a hole in the Memorial Amphitheater chapel, caused by water damage, is unacceptable. And he agreed that the 612-acre cemetery needs everything from road work to refurbishment of the grave site of President John F.
Kennedy, where corroding utility equipment needs replacing.

But Metzler said he has done the best he can with limited resources. The cemetery has put its focus on burials and inurnments — which number about 5,600 a year — and on ongoing major maintenance, he said, meaning that things such as the chapel, which isn't usually open to the public, have had to wait.

“Each year we have to make difficult decisions on which areas we're going to attack first,” Metzler said. “Other areas are not kept in a pristine manner. We are not happy with this either.”

More than 250,000 people are buried at Arlington, including some of the nation's foremost military and public figures, as well as 3,800 former slaves and two U.S. presidents.

The site has became a major tourist draw, as visitors flock to see the graves of Kennedy; his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; and his brother Robert, as well as the Tomb of the Unknowns, whose
changing-of-the-guard ceremony draws large summertime crowds.

The one conclusion that came out of yesterday's session is that more money is needed to fix the problem. Cemetery officials recently drew up a plan that would take care of all the deferred maintenance, and their list totaled about $200 million over 30 years, Metzler said.

“Today's message is that we need some help,” he said.

Metzler also said it would be incorrect to give the impression that the cemetery has fallen into disarray. The grounds appear neat and dignified to the typical visitor, he said, adding that during the past decade the cemetery has undertaken a long list of maintenance projects, including spending $4.5 million for marble restoration in the amphitheater and $1.2 million to replace a walkway at the Custis-Lee mansion on the cemetery grounds.

But Everett, who chaired yesterday's subcommittee hearing, seemed to take little comfort from that.

“I was really depressed,” he said of what he witnessed at Arlington this week. “We're in one of the most prosperous times as a nation. Surely we can afford to present our national shrines in a condition that they should be presented in. . . . Something has got to be done.”

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