Tomorrow is Memorial Day, a day to honor those who have fallen in service to this nation. There are few other places where that is done quite so well as at Arlington National Cemetery.
The burial ground is one of the most beautiful and sacred sites in America. It’s a place dedicated to those who have served, and it is designed to inspire reflection and gratitude.
Across rolling hills, precise columns of tombstones stand out against the manicured lawn and well-groomed trees and flowers.
Birds fill the air with song and sunshine dapples the landscape.
The remains of more than 400,000 are interred throughout the cemetery’s 624 acres. The grounds are the final resting place of presidents, Supreme Court justices, Medal of Honor recipients, and soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen from every American conflict since the Civil War.
Walk down one of the long rows of white marble sentinels. You are as likely to pass the graves of notables like Omar Bradley, Black Jack Pershing, or Audie Murphy as you are a long-dead private whose deeds are known only to God. Every plot holds a story of sacrifice and service.
Here also lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a monument dedicated to U.S. service members who died in battle and whose remains were never identified. The tomb contains servicemen from World I, World War II, and Korea. It is guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, regardless of weather, by sentinels from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment.
One can sense peace and camaraderie among those who rest beneath these rolling hills.
Be they veterans of the Civil War, World War II, or Afghanistan, there’s a shared kinship among those who have borne the burdens of war.
It’s little wonder so many eligible veterans hope to be buried here among their brothers and sisters. But, unfortunately, that may not be possible much longer. The cemetery is reaching capacity.
Every weekday between 27 and 30 burials are conducted — and about seven every Saturday. New burials consume an acre of land every three months.
Officials estimate that both above-ground and in-ground space will be exhausted sometime in the early 2040s. Karen Durham-Aguilera, executive director of Army National Military Cemeteries, told Congress earlier this year that Arlington will not have room to bury veterans of Operation Desert Storm (1990-1991) who die of old age.
The Army and Congress are urgently seeking solutions to keep the cemetery active for many more years. Two expansion projects are underway that will add 27 acres to the grounds by next year. There are also plans in the works that, if approved, would add an additional 40 acres by 2022. But even those additions will alleviate the problem for only a few more years.
I recently spoke with Renea Yates, deputy superintendent for administration at Arlington and Army Maj. Shannon Way, a strategic planner at the cemetery. Both stressed that options to resolve the dilemma are limited.
One solution would be to acquire more property. But there is little available land. Another option would be restricting eligibility as to who qualifies for burial. As it stands now, most current military members who have served at least one day on active duty, as well as their spouses and dependent children, are eligible. Military retirees are eligible, as are veterans retired for medical reasons, and recipients of the Purple Heart and other distinguished awards.
Last year, in a survey on capacity at Arlington, more than 28,000 respondents answered. The results show that the public overwhelmingly wants Arlington to remain open to active burials.
Almost everyone agrees that Medal of Honor recipients should always remain eligible. About 75 percent say burial should remain available to prisoners of war and recipients of valor awards. Limiting burials to those who meet these requirments would extend the cemetery’s active life until 2200. (Through Memorial Day, a second survey is available at https://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/News/Post/4519.)
House Armed Services Committee members are considering the issue. The committee chairman, Rep. Mike Coffman, a retired Marine Corps officer, said he wants to preserve Arlington for those killed in action. Rep. Don Bacon, a retired Air Force general, agrees that the cemetery “should be reserved for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for the country.”
Most veteran service organizations reject that proposal. Members of the groups — by and large retirees — feel that those who spent two decades or more serving this country and who have always expected to be buried in Arlington should not now be told they are no longer eligible.
Some lawmakers have suggested opening another cemetery, an Arlington II, somewhere worthy of such prestige. Both Gettysburg and Quantico have been suggested as options.
The national cemetery at Quantico deserves a closer look. It sits on 725 acres of beautiful land donated to the National Cemetery Administration by the Marine Corps in 1977. Only 140 acres of that property has been developed, leaving almost 600 acres available for future burials.
While this old sailor would like to be buried at Arlington — I couldn’t think of finer Americans to spend eternity with — many others deserve that honor much more than I. Personally, I like Marines. I come from a long line of them. Quantico National Cemetery would be a lovely spot.
Whatever is decided, it’s going to be a difficult decision — one that will affect many of the 2 million veterans now living, and their families.
I’m confident those entrusted with the decision will do what’s best. Arlington’s leadership wants very much to hear from everyone who has a stake in the cemetery.