House Passes Changes to Arlington Cemetery Eligibility

The House is hoping the third time's a charm for new eligibility rules for those buried in Arlington National Cemetery, passing a bill that makes it easier for qualified reservists to be buried in the hallowed ground.

The House passed the Arlington Cemetery Burial Eligibility Act Monday by a voice vote, and will send it to the Senate, where it has previously died twice before from inaction.

The vote comes several months after a waiver for burial rights was granted to Charles Burlingame, a former Navy pilot who was the captain of the American Airlines plane that hijackers crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11. A 20-year reservist, Burlingame was nine years shy of retirement, which made him ineligible for an Arlington burial until the waiver was granted.

The bill passed by the House would make any 20-year reservist, regardless of whether he or she died before retirement, eligible for burial at the cemetery and would also make eligible reservists who die while duty training. The current regulations only allow burial for such soldiers who die after being called up on active duty.

"Today, reservists die side by side with active duty personnel," said Peter Dickinson, a spokesman for the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, which has been attempting to push through similar changes in the regulations since 1997.

"The last time the regulations were changed were in 1967; it's a lot different today. [Reservists] should be recognized in law and with the same honors," Dickinson added.

One of the new provisions — now subject to congressional rather than Army oversight — would prohibit waivers for government officials who served in the Armed Services but do not qualify for an Arlington burial.

The rule stems in part from a review of several waivers given out during the Clinton administration, including one given to Swiss Ambassador Larry Lawrence, who died while in office in 1996. He was buried in Arlington, but a furor followed after critics discovered that Lawrence was a contributor to the president and was not wounded while serving in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II, which was the story used in part to garner him a waiver.

Lawrence's wife had his body exhumed in 1997. A General Accounting Office report issued in 1998 found that political contributions did not influence burial selections.

Nevertheless, given fairness issues and the increasing lack of space in the cemetery — as of March there were 32,312 plots left — House members and supporters of the bill say it's necessary to stop any preferential treatment or abuse by government officials before it starts.

"There have been fears that the waivers could have been abused, as politicians in the past and perhaps in the present have been known to do," said Dickinson.

Steve Thomas, a spokesman for the American Legion National Headquarters in Washington, said the organization stands firmly behind tightening the waiver qualifications.

"The case of Larry Lawrence was very embarrassing for the administration and signified a need to tighten the waiver procedure and a need for waivers to be given only under the most compelling and extraordinary circumstances," he said.

While supporting the Arlington Cemetery Burial Eligibility Act on the whole, the group doesn't necessarily agree with the measure regarding reservists, preferring waivers to be granted on a case-by-case basis.

"Our biggest concern was the space," he said. "We'd prefer that waivers be granted under the most unique and compelling circumstances such as the case of Captain Burlingame."

The bill passed Monday also includes a special waiver provision at the president's discretion, for those who are ineligible, but "whose acts, service or contributions to the Armed Forces are so extraordinary as to justify burial at Arlington."

House sponsors are hoping this will appease senators who let similar changes to eligibility die in part because they were uncomfortable with removing waiver authority for government officials, Dickinson said.

Currently, those who qualify for an Arlington Cemetery burial include members of the Armed Forces who die on active duty; retired members of the Armed Services, including 20-year reservists, who served on active duty; former members of the Armed Services who earned medals during their duty; former prisoners of war who died on or after Nov. 30, 1993; the president or any former president; and spouses and unmarried adult children and minor children of an eligible veteran at the discretion of the cemetery superintendent.

Dickinson said only 10 percent of eligible persons choose to be buried at Arlington, opting rather for family plots or other national cemeteries across the country.

The government is now looking to purchase additional space for the cemetery, which Congress anticipates will reach its 243,373-gravesite capacity in 20 years.