Nearly 2,000 people have submitted public comments about a controversial plan to change the eligibility standards for who qualifies for burial and services at Arlington National Cemetery.
Under orders from Congress in 2019, the military has been considering stiffening eligibility as the amount of available space for burials is being depleted.
Initial proposals would restrict eligibility to those killed in action, prisoners of war, Purple Heart recipients and those who’ve received awards of Silver Star or above.
Retired Capt. Kathi Dugan, who served in the U.S. Navy from 1969 to 1999, said she has long planned to have a final resting place at Arlington, as her father and mother did.
“That is very important to me, particularly as a female,” she said.
She says the new eligibility standards favor male veterans, who were more likely to see frontline action.
“I said, ‘They can't.’ I mean, it can't be just a Purple Heart or the Distinguished Defense Superior Service Medal. That's discriminatory against women and minorities,” she said.
The proposed changes also have triggered an outcry from some service organizations that said the suggested new rules could favor servicemen over servicewomen and some branches of the military over others.
“There's an enormous population of folks who have planned to have their final resting place be in Arlington National Cemetery, and they don't even know that there is a proposal to reduce that eligibility,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Mark Belinsky, director of the Military Officers Association of America.
Available space is dwindling at Arlington National Cemetery, which began operating nearly 150 years ago. In a report to Congress this year, the U.S. military reported it continues to conduct 24 to 27 services each weekday, with nearly 400,000 total burials. Though the federal government has implemented plans to expand the available space for burials, a shortage of land is inevitable.
A spokesperson for Arlington National Cemetery told the I-Team that without additional changes to eligibility the cemetery will stop new burials in the early 2040s. The spokesperson said the Department of the Army has gathered large amounts of public input on the topic by engaging with thousands of veterans by attending conferences, partnering with veterans and military service organizations, making public service announcements and producing two web-based surveys on the future of Arlington National Cemetery, which had more than 250,000 responses.
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The Department of the Army also allowed for public comment on the issue in 2020 and is currently going through them, with plans to announce its final eligibility criteria in early 2022.
The I-Team reviewed the nearly 2,000 public comments received by federal administrators to the proposal. The written responses include a series of notes from military families and veterans who said they’d already made plans for an Arlington burial.
One note expressed concern about a relative’s prospects for eligibility. It said, “With my brother in his 80s and myself in my 70s, we would like the peace of mind knowing that we have a place there with our beloved family.”
Another said, “Veterans that desire to be, earned the privilege, and have planned to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery should not have the rules changed after the fact of their service dates.”
One veteran wrote, “Having spent more than 20 years in the service of this country, I feel I have earned the right to be buried in ANC. I have provided for this in my estate plan.”
The Arlington spokesperson said, “Public sentiment most strongly supported maintaining eligibility for veterans who displayed extraordinary military sacrifice and service to the nation. While interment eligibility at ANC has changed 14 times over the past 157 years, the last significant change to eligibility prior to today’s announcement happened in 1980.”
Arlington is still growing, including the new Southern Expansion. But even with that potential 80,000 new burial spaces, Arlington is projected to hit capacity by the 2060s. The spokesperson told the I-Team, “Revised eligibility criteria combined with Southern Expansion will meet the legislated requirement to remain an active cemetery ‘well into the future,’ defined as 150 years.”
The Military Officers Association of America and some members of Congress have proposed the opening of a new national cemetery, which would offer the same full-service memorial ceremonies provided at Arlington National Cemetery. Belinsky, the officers’ association director, said the Defense Department and Department of Veterans Affairs have land available.
“There really are a lot of options out there available that would not require purchasing a lot of land and would not require a lot of construction for ceremonial troops to be moved and be available to provide those honors,” Belinsky said.
Belinsky’s organization has recommended keeping eligibility levels unchanged after announcing and commencing work on a new national military cemetery.
“The retirement ceremony isn't for you. It's for your family and your friends who, as you've been gone 20 years. They finally see your service and what it meant to the country,” Dugan said.
She would like to see another national military cemetery with full honors established, possibly on the West Coast. But the I-Team was told, “The Department of the Army has not received any directive to establish any additional national military cemeteries”.
It's important to note that any eligibility changes at Arlington will not impact the 155 cemeteries run by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA says more than 93% of veterans have access to the free burial option within 75 miles of their home.
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.