Arlington cemetery running out of space


Taps' sad notes caress acres of consecrated bluegrass as oak leaves brush white gravestones. It's 10 a.m. at Arlington National Cemetery; already two burials are under way.

Over a hill of graves, the green slopes turn to mud hills and wild grasses — the cemetery's next plots. They're needed. More than 1,500 veterans, mostly from World War II and Korea, are dying each day. Arlington National Cemetery is running out of room.

” ‘When is Arlington National Cemetery going to close?' is usually the first question people ask me,” cemetery superintendent John Metzler said.

Metzler grew up at Arlington National Cemetery. As a 4-year-old, he climbed the cemetery's cherry and oak trees; as a teenager, he watched his father conduct President John F. Kennedy's funeral. Both Metzler and his father, John Metzler Sr., are Army veterans. Both returned to serve as caretakers of the nation's military cemeteries and ended up at Arlington. Metzler lives in the on-site caretaker's house he grew up in.

Metzler's father is still there, too, interred in one of the cemetery's thousands of simple white graves.

So a deep current of empathy runs through Metzler in his quest to offer all the nation's heroes a home here.

“It's very personal. I live here; I work here,” Metzler said. “I would say Arlington National Cemetery is our premier memorial to our military and to our way of life. It is important that it always be operating and always be open for people who want to be buried here. You just can't let this facility close.”

Across the United States, 27 of the 119 national cemeteries for veterans are closed to new burials, said Jo Schuda, a spokeswoman for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Two new national cemeteries — one in Texas and one in Ohio — opened this year. There are still 6,000 acres remaining in the open cemeteries; it's often more a problem of proximity than space, Schuda said.

Distance to a national cemetery often keeps a veteran away, said Abel Chapa, a veterans service officer in Corpus Christi, Texas.

“It's definitely a problem,” Chapa said. “Our office has initiated trying to build a South Texas Veterans' Cemetery because the nearest facility is at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio. And that facility is getting filled. And most relatives want to have their deceased buried in a nearby location.”

Navy Lt. Cmdr. E.A. “Rex King,” who travels the United States to help World War II veterans and spread their tales of war and heroism, has seen too many die each year without a place of final rest.

“The number of vets dying per day is just appalling, and the cemeteries are rapidly filling,” King said.

“And for a lot of these people passing, this may be their only option for burial because of their financial situation.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs plans to build six new national cemeteries in the next five years, in Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Oklahoma City, Sacramento, Calif., and South Florida.

The plans will create new space for the nation's 24.4 million veterans, before their death rate peaks at a projected 620,000 a year in 2008.

At Arlington, only 60 of the cemetery's 612 current acres can hold new graves.

They are estimated to last until 2025. Twenty of those acres are in current use, but the cemetery doesn't have the money to get the other 40 landscaped.

The cemetery used to handle about 13 burials a day, now it hosts about 25. And a new wave of Vietnam veterans will be adding to the ranks of the deceased.

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