House Committee Approves Arlington National Cemetery Bill

Thursday December 13, 2001
House Committee OKs Arlington Bill

A House committee on Thursday approved legislation that would expand burial privileges at Arlington National Cemetery by removing an age requirement for reservists.

The bill would eliminate the requirement that retired reservists who would otherwise be eligible be at least 60 years old to qualify for burial privileges. Currently, reservists with 20 years of service are eligible after age 60. Additionally, the bill would extend those privileges to reservists who die during training activities. Their spouses may be buried with them.

The bill, which now goes to the full House, also authorizes the secretary of the Army to build a memorial to the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks at Arlington but requires that he consult with their families first.

Before the vote, John Metzler, superintendent of the cemetery, said there is not enough space for the 188,000 reservists who could be eligible for burial there under the bill.

But Rep. Chris Smith, chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, estimated that only an additional 50 to 200 people a year would be buried at Arlington as a result of the bill becoming law.

Smith, R-N.J., proposed the legislation after a former Navy pilot, the captain of the American Airlines plane that was hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon on September 11, was denied a grave at Arlington because he was only 51 years old.

After intense public criticism, Army Secretary Thomas White reversed the decision last week and Charles Burlingame was buried at the cemetery on Wednesday.

“It seems to me to be profoundly inequitable and unfair that reservists who serve our nation … should be ineligible for in-ground burial at Arlington because he or she had the misfortune to die prior to being 60,” Smith said.

Metzler also saw fairness as an issue, noting that under the bill, reservists who have never served on active duty would be eligible while individuals who served in World War II but don’t have any awards or decorations would not.

The committee rejected an amendment offered by Rep. Stephen Buyer, R-Ind., that would have made reservists who die during inactive duty training ineligible. Buyer argued that they do not deserve the same burial privileges as those who die on active duty.

Lawmakers said the focus should be on equity, not space, and pledged to consider expanding the cemetery if necessary. Arlington is projected to run out of burial plots by 2025.

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