Grave matters for America's vets

Posted: Dec 12, 2001 12:00 AM
Arlington National Cemetery, Va. -- On a cold gray day, the fierce colors of the American flag cloaked Johnny "Mike" Spann's coffin and warmed the air with patriotic incandescence. Nearby, the clip-clop of a riderless horse's hooves and the rat-a-tat-tat of a solo snare drum pierced winter's stillness. Amid the frozen hallowed ground here, row upon row upon row of weathered white headstones criss-cross the fields and vales and hills. This is where the bold hues and somber sounds of freedom form indelible portraits of personal grief tinged with national pride. From Eisenhower Drive, I watched Spann's funeral cortege gather Monday afternoon at McClellan Gate before marching west toward his final address: Section 34, grave #2359, on a slope bounded by Pershing and Grant Drives. The escort included Marine honor guards in crisp, dark uniforms; military band members with sparkling silver instruments; and a horse-drawn caisson carrying the coffin draped in red, white and blue. Spann, a 32-year-old CIA officer and former Marine Corps artillery specialist, was the first American killed in action during our war on terrorism in Afghanistan. Ineligible for burial at Arlington because his military service was too short, Spann's family received a waiver from President Bush allowing his internment this week. The vivid funeral scene will be repeated today (Dec. 12) for Charles F. Burlingame, a former Navy pilot and 17-year Naval reservist, who was the captain of American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11. Like Spann, the nearly 52-year-old Burlingame also needed special permission to be buried at Arlington because he fell eight years short of the cemetery's eligibility criteria for retired Naval reservists. The eligibility rules for internment or inurnment at Arlington's resting place are almost as complex as the tax code. Burlingame's family won the waiver after a widely-publicized battle with the Army, which administers the nation's most famous military burial site. This messy bureaucratic wrangling raises a vexing issue. As old soldiers perish and new ones fall, America's veterans face a grave matter: Arlington is running out of room. A columbarium in the southeast part of the cemetery will eventually hold the cremated remains of up to 50,000. But families who want traditional ground burials for their war heroes are feeling the squeeze. More than 260,000 are interred here -- the famous and the unknown, young and aged, men and women. On average, 20 more are laid to rest everyday. The waiting list is long. Only 60 of the cemetery's 612 acres can hold new graves, which will last until 2025. Twenty of those acres are in use; the cemetery lacks funding to get the other 40 landscaped. Former President Clinton didn't help matters by cravenly doling out plots to the well-heeled and well-connected who, like him, had no military experience whatsoever. The defense authorization bill before Congress this week contains various federal land transfer provisions that will result in a net gain of 31 acres for the cemetery. According to Bill Johnson, legislative director for U.S. Rep. James V. Hansen, R-Utah, the land acquisitions should extend Arlington's "life" well past 2050. But it's not a done deal yet. Standing in the way are petulant local officials in Arlington County who were miffed that they weren't "consulted" on the arrangements; minority activists with assorted grievances against the military; and environmentalists who don't want veterans' gravesites to clutter their view of old trees. One local ringleader, Arlington County Manager Ron Carlee, told The Washington Post he was angered -- and "devastated" -- by the plan to turn precious green space into cemetery space. To which Donna Leonard of McLean, Va., replied in a now-prescient letter published Sept. 11, 2001 in The Washington Post: "Let me remind Mr. Carlee that he would not have his 'green space,' or 'historic land' for that matter, if it were not for the brave souls who gave their lives for the freedoms we enjoy today." Amen. We must give more ground to those who stood theirs in defense of our liberty. The bravest of the brave, our battle-bruised and bullet-torn heroes of war, deserve to be laid to rest at Arlington wrapped in the flag -- not in red tape.