Should Arlington honors go beyond rank?

Enlisted valor-award recipients often don’t get ‘full’ ceremony
By William H. McMichael – Staff writer
Courtesy of the Air Force Times
Tuesday March 25, 2008

An enlisted service member killed in battle and posthumously awarded the Silver Star for heroism is rendered lesser honors at Arlington National Cemetery than an officer who dies in a car crash the day after being commissioned.

That statement took officials at several veterans’ organizations by surprise. But it is true: Burial honors at Arlington, the nation’s most storied military cemetery and home of the Tomb of the Unknowns, are accorded strictly by rank, not by the circumstances of death.

“That is the custom that has been prescribed,” said Jack Metzler, the superintendent at Arlington for the past 17 years.

Most enlisted troops receive “standard honors” — military pallbearers, a firing party led by a noncommissioned officer, a bugler and, on request, a chaplain.

All others receive variations on “full honors,” which also include a horse-drawn caisson, a band and, if requested, escort troops. The only enlisted troops who may receive full honors are those in the highest enlisted grade, E-9.

Medal of Honor recipients, regardless of rank, also rate the caisson in addition to standard honors.

That custom is due for a change, Sergeant First Class Robert Durbin wrote in an e-mail to Military Times.

“The two types of funerals are dramatically different,” said Durbin, referring to standard versus full-honors military funerals. “In a place our nation considers to be the ‘most hallowed grounds in America,’ a place that demands our respect, I think this issue deserves to be looked at.

“Honors rendered should be rendered fairly, based on actions, not rank,” wrote Durbin, currently assigned to Patrol Base Warrior in Iraq.

Metzler said there are two reasons why this cannot or should not be done. The biggest roadblock, he said, is the limited availability of assets for full-honors funerals.

Each service provides its own troops for funerals at Arlington. But these ceremonial troops also must support presidential and other official functions in the Washington area.

Arlington has two caisson units; each can do four of the stately funerals per day. It takes time to do the “turnaround” from one funeral to the next, Metzler said. For example, the horses must be watered and inspected after each ceremony.

Also, the band isn’t always available, as other official functions beckon — although, Metzler said, “only a handful” of people opt to wait until the band is available.

The average wait for a funeral at Arlington is five weeks; cemetery workers work to limit the wait to two weeks for Iraq and Afghanistan war dead, Metzler said.

Arlington averages about 27 funerals a day, five days a week, he said; none are held on Saturdays or Sundays. There has been an increase of about one funeral per day since the start of the Iraq war, but most of the burials involve the World War II generation.

“The ability to have more full-honors funerals for everyone, all day long, isn’t there,” Metzler said. “It’s the caissons. It’s the chapel. It’s the traffic.”

But there is an equally important, and more contentious, reason for not rendering honors based on the circumstances of death rather than rank: having to decide who rates full honors and who does not, Metzler said.

“The heroism is the heroism,” he said. “Where do you draw the line? Someone will come back and say, ‘My loved one had a Bronze Star with a “V” device, and it was awarded three times. Is that the equivalent of a Silver Star?’ I would think that it would be difficult to implement.”

As of March 18, only 473 of the 4,443 service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan through March 1 — 10.6 percent — had been buried at Arlington, with highs of 117 burials in 2005 and 2007, and a low of 48 in 2003, Metzler said.

Most were enlisted members, most were killed in action, and the highest decoration most received was the Bronze Star with “V” device for valor, Metzler said, adding that he has no way to check the precise number of awards earned by individuals buried at Arlington.

The Army is responsible for operations at Arlington. Army Secretary Pete Geren and Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey did not respond through a spokesman to a request for comment.

Several veterans’ groups also declined comment. But Joe Barnes, executive secretary of the Fleet Reserve Association and a co-chairman of the Military Coalition, an umbrella group of more than 30 military associations, said rendering burial honors based on rank “is not a slight against anyone.”

“This decision is out of respect for the few who were accorded the opportunity and responsibility to lead,” Barnes said.

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