New eligibility rules for burial at Arlington National Cemetery, driven by lack of space, is alarming in differentiating between the quality of military service performed in combat and in non-combat active duty situations. A tier system implicitly states that death incurred by combat troops trumps fatal incidents that may occur on active duty, but not in war.
It’s noteworthy that the first official burial at this hallowed cemetery occurred on May 13, 1864 after the death of William Christman, 20, a Union soldier from Pennsylvania who died of disease. During the Civil War, disease-caused deaths outnumbered combat ones.
According to The Washington Post, proposed rules would end burial eligibility for members of the Reserves, Army or Air National Guard who died in non-combat situations while on active duty.
In addition, the rules change would stop burial eligibility for military retirees but allow to be buried above ground. Elimination of eligibility for veterans of Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan seems likely.
The Washington Post reported that currently 22 million active duty members and veterans are eligible for 96,000 spaces at Arlington National Cemetery. Last year, the cemetery opened a 27-acre section that can hold 27,000 remains in close-packed, pre-dug graves, along with a new niche wall and columbaria.
The cemetery also is planning a 37-acre section to be ready by 2025.
While I sympathize with the difficulty in making burial decisions dictated by limited space at the nation’s most sacred cemetery, I strongly question the rationale for excluding members of the armed forces killed, for example, in training accidents in preparation for combat. These accidents are all too frequent, sadly so. Instances of helicopter accidents in the Army and Marine Corps and aerial mishaps involving Navy and Air Force aircraft are well-known.
The powers-to-be at Arlington National Cemetery, property once owned by Confederate General Robert E. Lee, must understand, as I hope they do, their obligation to the grieving families of service members killed performing non-combat active duty service. They too mourn the death of their sons and daughters killed preparing for combat.
Our military services—and our national cemetery directors—have a implied covenant with our American families. They expect that the nation will pay proper homage to their deceased children, as in offering a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, if so desired. How we as a country express our gratitude and condolences to a family is indicative of how we value their service.
Non-combat deaths, which might include combat veterans, are, in some ways, tougher to accept than combat fatalities. Our nation loses dedicated soldiers and airmen who never will get the chance to serve overseas against nations that currently nurture and support terrorism, and for which they trained.
Many years ago, the US Army, due to budget cuts, reduced its support of veteran burials at state cemeteries by providing a tape recording of “Taps,” a bugle call played at military funerals, instead of providing an honor guard. Families were incensed. They contacted local state delegates and senators to complain about what they viewed as a violation of an unwritten contract to provide a proper failure to their loved ones.
Elected political officials then approached the Maryland National Guard and demanded that it establish an honor guard for funerals of all veterans in Maryland cemeteries. After the legislature funded honor guard detachments throughout the state, the Guard provided a noble service to families. Complaints diminished.
If the Arlington National Cemetery must continue to acquire land in congested Arlington County in northern Virginia to accommodate not only those killed in combat on active duty, but those who die in training accidents and illness suffered in preparation for combat, then do so with urgency.
Words written by Horace Lorenzo Trim to accompany “Taps” seem appropriate: “Sun has set, shadows come, /Time has fled, Scouts must go to their beds/Always true to the promise that they made.”
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.