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Arlington National Cemetery Grapples With Capacity Limits And Changing Nature Of Memorialization

Posted By Reserve Officers Association, Tuesday, October 27, 2015
Updated: Friday, May 13, 2016

Louisiana National Guardsman Staff Sgt. Thomas Florich was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery after a lengthy fight with the Army. (Louisiana National Guard, AP)

The inevitable faces Arlington National Cemetery: it is nearing capacity for “below-ground” interments (commonly called “burials”).  There is plenty of room for the enshrinement of cremated remains, called “inurnment.”

At a recent Advisory Committee on Arlington National Cemetery’s Honor Subcommittee meeting at Arlington attended by ROA and the Enlisted Association of the National Guard (and no other veterans or military organizations, curiously), subcommittee members focused on ANC’s diminishing capacity. 

During fiscal year 2015, Arlington, which is under the jurisdiction of the Army, saw 6,828 interments and “inurnments” (cremations), up from 5,813 in FY 2013, but down a bit from FY2014.  Under the 27-acre “Millennium Project” expansion underway, room is expected to run out in 2035.  A second, “Southern” expansion of 40 acres on the grounds extends that fateful day to the 2050s. 

While service members killed in action are quickly scheduled by Arlington for interment, scheduling for other remains reflects a cemetery team under great pressure: the wait for scheduling a funeral ranges from 12 weeks for USMC remains to 22 for Navy remains, with the Army and Air Force being about 14 weeks.

The Honor Subcommittee also discussed ANC interment eligibility.  Given the nature of service provided by an “operational” reserve in a time of constant hostilities, the old rules have grown visibly and unacceptably out of balance.  An example is the struggle entailed in gaining Army approval for the burial at Arlington of Louisiana ARNG Staff Sgt. Thomas Florich.  Staff Sergeant Florich was killed in the March 2015 crash of a UH-60 Black Hawk.  His family’s request for a waiver permitting his burial (instead of inurnment, which was authorized without waiver) was denied because he was on inactive duty for training orders.  ROA advocated for his burial at ANC; Secretary of the Army John McHugh ultimately reversed the bureaucracy’s decision, approving the Guardsman’s burial at Arlington.

In a conversation with committee member and former chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, Hon. Chet Edwards of Texas, ROA’s executive director, Jeff Phillips, conveyed the point that eligibility reform must ensure that the type of orders under which a service member is “paid” must not influence the manner in which he or she is honored in death, as nearly became the case with Staff Sgt. Florich. 

Arlington will, sooner or later, become full.  Now is the time to review eligibility criteria to ensure equity and appropriateness, recognize that Arlington’s capacity will inevitably run out, and explore options.  As Chairman Edwards said, in doing so, what cannot be compromised is the “iconic” nature of Arlington; it is the nation’s shrine; its solemnity, dignity, serenity, and beauty must be fittingly preserved. 

Edwards, son of a WWII naval aviator, also voiced the opinion, with which we agree, that the people of America and the Congress would “be offended” if recipients of the Medal of Honor could not be buried at Arlington: should then a dedicated area be set aside to ensure perpetual space for recipients of our highest award for valor?  Could the impeccably maintained VA-run National Cemeteries, which now have different eligibility criteria, somehow play a helpful role as Arlington’s capacity disappears? Could a sizable Arlington annex be built elsewhere in the National Capital Area? Could ceremonies be held at ANC, but the actual interment occur at the annex . . . ?  

ROA will take an active role in helping shape this discussion; the outcomes must in any event assure equity for Reservists who die doing their duty, serving our nation.

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