Arlington National Cemetery: A Promise Made, A Promise Kept?
As a Vietnam era veteran approaching that “date certain,” I often – and perhaps somewhat belatedly – contemplate about where I would like my last resting place to be.
Presently I am torn between the “familiarity” and nearness to my loved ones offered by a local cemetery and the honor, history and beauty represented and offered by the “rolling green hills…dotted with trees…hundreds of years in age and…gardens found throughout” Arlington National Cemetery.
However, soon, “the powers that be” may render such a choice mute.
The mission of the Arlington National Cemetery — its original 200 acres officially designated in 1864 by the War Department as a military cemetery — is to
“…represent the American people for past, present, and future generations by laying to rest those few who have served our nation with dignity and honor…”
Of course, “those few” have now become the more than 420,000 presently resting there. With about 7,000 new burials annually, even the many-times-expanded (now encompassing 624 acres) cemetery is expected to be full within 25 years.
Those resting there have honorably served our nation during times of war – in every military conflict in American history – and during times of peace.
The more than 420,000 resting there include active duty service members, veterans and their families. The common thread is “Service to country.”
Among those in the “common thread,” eligible for internment, are members who died on active duty and their immediate family, retirees and their immediate family and recipients of the Purple Heart and other high decorations.
In addition, certain other members and their families, are eligible for above ground inurnment, ”the storage of cremated remains in a Columbarium – or wall,” a temporary solution to the lack of space at Arlington for ground burial.
Watch the video below for detailed eligibility requirements
There is no mention of any particular war or conflict, nor of any time period nor, in the legal sense, of a date certain by when eligibility would be restricted or rescinded.
Nevertheless, a congressionally mandated Advisory Committee on Arlington National Cemetery (ACANC) has submitted to the Secretary of the Army a proposal that would limit eligibility for burial at Arlington to servicemembers killed in action; members who died on active duty; former POWs; and recipients of the Medal of Honor, Purple Heart, Silver Star and above.
“Above ground inurnment would remain available to a rapidly declining population of WWII and Korean War veterans, absent one of the qualifiers above.”
That concession to our surviving WWII (and Korean War) veterans is said to reflect the Committee’s respect for “the overwhelming survey support to honor our WWII veterans.”
“Rather than remove them from eligibility…having them remain above-ground eligible is consistent with that desire,” says the Committee.
But how about veterans of the Vietnam War, Iraq War, Afghanistan War and of other post-9/11 conflicts?
Views are diverse and sometimes emotional.
In an interview one year ago, John Towles, a legislative deputy director for Veterans of Foreign Wars, told Smithsonian.com:
I don’t know if it’s fair to go back on a promise to an entire population of veterans…Let Arlington fill up with people who have served their country… We can create a new cemetery that, in time, will be just as special.
One professional military organization, the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), while appreciative of the challenges facing the committee, is concerned with the prospect that, “If the Army moves forward with these recommendations, the majority of the living generation of servicemembers would become ineligible for either above-ground inurnment or internment.”
MOAA remains committed to ”preserve the promise of Arlington National Cemetery” by allowing the currently eligible population with expectations of interment to execute their end-of-life plans.
To that end, MOAA makes several recommendations, including
• Taking no action that restricts eligibility for present-day military retirees
• The acquisition and development of contiguous and noncontiguous land for expansion.
Most significantly, MOAA President and CEO Lt. Gen. Dana Atkins, USAF (Ret), states:
We cannot assess the value of Arlington to the future generation, or compare the intentions for burial of future servicemembers to those today. Therefore, we should not sacrifice the benefit of burial of the living population to preserve space for a generation not yet born.
As mentioned, this veteran has not yet settled on burial plans. As also mentioned, it would be an honor for me to rest at Arlington, but I do not feel it is an “entitlement” as I did not serve in combat.
However, for those of my contemporaries who served in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere and who fought and even bled for our country, I believe it is an obligation, a moral contract with a date certain that cannot be altered or ignored.
Lead image, credit: Arlington National Cemetery