Top brass reserved burial plots at Arlington

Arlington National Cemetery maintained a secret list of four-star generals and other senior officers who were allowed to pick out and reserve choice burial plots, in violation of military regulations, an Army investigation found.

Such notables as Gen. Carl Vuono, former Army chief of staff, and Gen. Maxwell Thurman, who headed the 1989 Panama invasion, were on the list of 94 officers and two federal officials in the 1980s and early 1990s. More than half the list was composed of generals, who received the privilege of touring the revered cemetery and choosing a family plot, according to a 1991 report by the Army inspector general obtained last month by The Washington Times.

The IG said the perk violated an Army regulation that specifically prohibits reserving space at the crowded national shine.

The Army manages the sprawling cemetery, where burial is restricted to long-serving veterans, holders of the nation’s highest military awards or the Purple Heart, those killed on active duty and top federal officials.

The House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on oversight and investigations concluded earlier this year a probe into favoritism at Arlington. The inquiry unearthed the fraudulent burial of Democratic fund-raiser M. Larry Lawrence. His fabricated World War II record enabled his family to obtain an exemption from rules that would otherwise have disqualified him for an Arlington interment. His widow had his body disinterred from Arlington.

The Army IG report showed that favoritism in the form of the reservation list reached back to the presidencies of George Bush and Ronald Reagan. There is no indication in the report that those administrations knew of the list. Said the IG, “Ground burial sites at [Arlington] were de facto reserved in violation of Army policy. Senior officials, as well as others, were allowed to select their grave sites at [Arlington].”

The Army IG focused on burial approvals during the Bush and Reagan administrations as well as presidencies dating back to 1967. The Army provided a copy of the IG report to The Times through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Elaine Kanellis, an Army spokeswoman at the Pentagon, said Arlington abolished the list after the probe was completed and erased all selected sites. She said no one on the list received the site they selected.

The Army began the probe after receiving complaints that unqualified people were gaining waivers for burial at Arlington. Investigators found that 94 exemptions were granted by the Army secretary or White House between 1967 and 1990. All of them, the report said, were justified. But the IG did take exception to a list of plot reservations kept by the cemetery superintendent.

Raymond J. Costanzo, who then headed Arlington, testified that he didn’t guarantee a particular parcel. “If we are just holding it for a person, that is not a reservation,” he told the IG. “Anyone who has requested, requested of me, I try to accommodate them,” he said. “So I take the position that if there is anything I can do positively for a person I will try to do that as long as it is not a serious violation of any rule, regulation or law. I would do that, yes. … Sometimes we will ride around the cemetery and talk about it.”

The IG described the arrangement this way: “It was general practice to not schedule a ground burial in a previously selected site as long as other sites were available. This practice created a perception that ground burial sites were reserved.” Among well-known generals on the list: John Wickham, former Army chief of staff in the Reagan administration; Frederick Woerner, former head of U.S. Southern Command; Matthew B. Ridgway, who led U.S. troops in the Korean War; John Galvin, former NATO commander; and Robert Riscassi, the top commander in South Korea. Most on the list are still alive. Gen. Thurman died of leukemia in 1995; Gen. Ridgway died in 1993 at age 98.

The list of 84 included 19 four-star generals, one four-star Coast Guard admiral, 13 three-star generals, six two-star generals, five one-star generals, one assistant secretary of the Army and a congressional staffer. The Army could not say how many deceased officers on the list received the sites they picked out. The Veterans subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Terry Everett, Alabama Republican, found no evidence that Democratic donors “bought” Arlington sites. But the panel did find some instances of favoritism and inconsistencies in how some families won waivers while others were denied.

Text Of A Letter To The Editor Of The Washington Times
By Webmaster Michael Patterson
This letter will appear in the Washington Times over the weekend of 8 August 1998

To The Editor: 

As the webmaster of the UNOFFICIAL Arlington National Cemetery website (, I read with interest your article on so-called “reservations” at the Cemetery.

While there may be a little something to your story, there are some factors that your story did not address.

First, a limited number of the older sections of the cemetery still accept private gravestones, while the newer sections do not. Many of the sections that were alluded to in your article are those older sections where, because of the gravestone issue, many prominent Americans are buried. In many cases the families of senior military officers and government officials desire that their graves be marked by such a private memorial (placed and maintained by the families at no expense to the government). It therefore seems reasonable to me that if a family decides to place such a private memorial to their loved one that it would be in one of these older sections. You reported that General Maxwell Thurman was buried among other prominent generals and admirals (in Section 30 of the Cemetery), but you failed to take into account the fact that this is one of the sections which can accept private headstones and that there are many other fine Americans (not of the senior rank and certainly not prominent except to their loved ones) who are also buried in this section. Certainly Section 30 is not a traditional “tourist stop” in the Cemetery.

The same can be said of many of the other sections that you referred to in your article (i.e. Sections 7, 21, 1, 2 etc) in which there are both many senior officials and other American soldiers.

It also stands to reason that many senior officers in our military consider Arlington National Cemetery as their final resting place because they wish to lie among their peers who have passed before them or with other family members already buried at Arlington.

While I was among the first to be critical of the “Gravegate” situation which was in the news earlier this year, and supported the changes in Army policy which resulted from Congressional hearings, I do not believe that the present situation can be honestly compared with that situation.

Finally, please know that, at one time in our history, it was perfectly acceptable for individuals to “reserve” a gravesite at Arlington (i.e. General Nelson Miles – a Medal of Honor recipient, a veteran of the Civil War, the Indian Wars and the Spanish-American War, who selected a gravesite in reltively faraway section of the Cemetery) that practice was formally halted a number of years ago.

Thank you for considering my views in this matter.

Sincerely, Michael Patterson ([email protected])

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