Who Deserves an Arlington Burial?

The recent tragedies at the U.S. Capitol and at two of our embassies in Africa have evoked special compassion for U.S. government employees killed in the performance of their duties. In a sincere effort to honor them, public officials have waived existing rules to allow some of the victims to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, even though they never served in the military.

While I have great sympathy for the families of those who lost their lives, I believe we need to enforce once again strict eligibility standards for Arlington. We should remember why the cemetery was created: to honor the sacred memory of those who died as the result of military service.

The use of waivers not only flies in the face of that history, but creates problems of its own. Take the case of Gail Dobert, a Commerce Department employee who died in the 1996 plane crash that killed Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. Dobert's parents applied for a waiver to give her an Arlington burial, but reported that they were pressured to withdraw the application so that White House officials would not be forced to reject it. They criticized the current process of granting exceptions as neither equitable nor consistent.

I believe they are right. Political influence has been a factor in granting some waivers, and it would be a great tragedy if the American people came to believe that burial at Arlington could be obtained as a matter of course by those who are well-connected. The sense of public outrage was highlighted by an unusually egregious case earlier this year, when the body of M. Larry Lawrence, who had been ambassador to Switzerland and a Democratic campaign contributor, was exhumed from Arlington after it was shown that he had lied about his military record.

It is hardly surprising that the question of who should be buried at Arlington evokes strong feelings. With its historic character and prominent location, the 134-year-old cemetery has become a natural focus of our national mourning–a memorial to some of our country's greatest leaders and a place where families would like their loved ones to be honored and remembered.

But let's remember that Arlington's connection to the military goes back to its origins. Arlington House (the Custis Lee mansion) was built in part to honor the memory of George Washington, the country's first president and preeminent military leader. At the outbreak of the Civil War, the United States took possession of the strategically situated estate from Robert E. Lee and his wife; in 1864, 200 acres were designated for use as a national military cemetery. It's now three times that size.

At its inception, Arlington was one of 73 national cemeteries established for the hundreds of thousands of military casualties of Union troops from the Civil War. But as famous military leaders and war heroes from that terrible conflict and subsequent wars–great leaders such as Gen. Philip Sheridan and Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing–were laid to rest at Arlington, the cemetery's aura grew. In 1921, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I was established on the grounds, later to become the Tomb of the Unknowns as unidentified casualties from World War II, Korea and Vietnam were added. But it was the emotional funeral of President John F. Kennedy at Arlington in November 1963 and the eternal flame placed there in his memory that truly heightened public interest in the cemetery.

In the mid-1960s, after a century of operation, Arlington officials realized that, with the aging of the World War II veteran population and the casualties from the Vietnam War, the cemetery would soon be full. Beginning in 1967, Arlington burials were limited by Army regulations to those who had died while on active military duty, highly decorated veterans, veterans who had been wounded in combat, military retirees with at least 20 years of service, high government officials who were veterans, and immediate family members of those eligible. (The cemetery also has a columbarium for the cremated remains of honorably discharged veterans; eligibility for this is not restricted.) Despite these criteria, which are far more restrictive than those in use at any other national cemetery, Arlington will run out of space for in-ground burials by about 2025 unless it is expanded onto nearby parcels of land, as I have proposed.

Following the adoption of these restrictive eligibility rules, a practice of exceptions or waivers began to develop. At first, it got little notice. Records of these exceptions are incomplete–until 1994, there never were more than a dozen or so a year, although that number has increased since then. It appears that decisions on waiver requests from 1968 to about 1984 were made by the president; more recent decisions have generally been made by the secretary of the Army, who has administrative responsibility for Arlington.

Serious problems with such waivers came to light in the spring of 1997 when I requested the House Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations to look into all available records of exceptions. Its investigation revealed a process that was vulnerable to political influence and charges of unfairness because it was not open or well-defined. We learned that the Army's regulations and publications have never mentioned the process for obtaining a waiver, so families that might have requested one were not aware that they could. Moreover, some families were refused waivers under circumstances that were difficult to distinguish from those in which waivers were granted. Finding no consistency in how such decisions were made, the Veterans' Affairs Committee concluded on a bipartisan basis that the waiver practice should be terminated and Arlington National Cemetery returned to its original purpose–honoring the nation's military dead.

Aiming to restore impartiality and fairness to the process, I sponsored legislation–H.R. 3211, adopted by the House of Representatives by a vote of 412-0 on March 24. My bill, which has not yet been considered by the Senate, would do three things. First, it would adopt with very little change the existing regulations that restrict burial at Arlington to veterans who were wounded in combat or otherwise distinguished themselves through military service. Second, it would strike rules that allow burial of high-ranking and elected government officials who do not meet the proposed distinguished military service criteria. (This change means that members of Congress such as myself and the ranking Democratic member of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, Lane Evans, will not be eligible for burial at Arlington.) Third, it would prohibit waivers or exceptions for any other person who does not meet the military criteria contained in the legislation.

Those members of the House of Representatives who supported the legislation have nothing but the highest respect for the service of non-military personnel killed in the line of duty. But they did not take on the special duty and responsibility of those who served in the armed forces. Perhaps we could honor valiant public servants who are not veterans by establishing a separate cemetery to memorialize them.

Nor would passage of the bill imply any disrespect for the hundreds of thousands of veterans who die each year and are eligible for burial at any national cemetery except Arlington. In fact, this legislation has been overwhelmingly supported by all of the major veteran service organizations, such as the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, as well as by military organizations such as the Non-Commissioned Officers Association. The nation needs to preserve the historic character of its national military cemeteries. Arlington's original and noble purpose was to be the final resting place for those with distinguished military service. The families of Americans who lost their lives in military service deserve our commitment to maintaining that purpose in the centuries to come.

Rep. Bob Stump (R-Ariz.) is the chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee and a World War II combat veteran.

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