Arlington national cemetery could close in decades

The fight to keep America's most revered cemetery in operation

Jake Hughes
February 01, 2018 - 9:49 am

Credit: Jasper Colt-USA TODAY NETWORK

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Arlington National Cemetery, it's considered by some to be the most hallowed grounds in the nation. Home of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the JFK Memorial, the National Women's Memorial, among others. Burial site to some of our nation's best, like Sergeant Audie Murphy and General of the Armies John J. Pershing. Opened in 1864, it has been in operation for over 140 years, but that time may be coming to an end.

The cemetery currently has over 400,000 service members buried there but it's running out of room. Multiple expansions over the years have kept it afloat, but there's only so much room in Arlington County. A current expansion project, called the Millennium Project, is set to finish this spring and open 27 acres and nearly 100,000 more grave plots. But, that will only keep it running for an estimated 23 years. To combat this, the cemetery's advisory committee recently met to discuss their options to extend the life of Arlington.

One option is to simply restrict eligibility. Currently, a service member must meet the following criteria:

  • Any active-duty member of the armed forces (except those members serving on active duty for training only).
  • Any veteran who is retired and eligible for retirement pay from service in the armed forces (including service members retired from a reserve component who served a period of active duty (other than for training)).
  • Any former member of the armed forces separated honorably prior to October 1, 1949, for medical reasons and who was rated at 30% or greater disabled effective on the day of discharge.
  • Any former member of the armed forces who has been awarded one of the following decorations:
    • Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross, or Air Force Cross, Silver Star, Purple Heart
  • Any former member of the armed forces who served on active duty (other than for training) and who held any of the following positions:
    • An elective office of the U.S. Government (such as a term in Congress).
    • Office of the Chief Justice of the United States or of an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.
    • An office listed, at the time the person held the position, in 5 USC 5312 or 5313 (Levels I and II of the Executive Schedule).
    • The chief of a mission who was at any time during his/her tenure classified in Class I under the provisions of Section 411, Act of August 13, 1946, 60 Stat. 1002, as amended (22 USC 866) or as listed in State Department memorandum dated March 21, 1988.
  • Any former prisoner of war who, while a prisoner of war, served honorably in the active military, naval, or air service, whose last period of military, naval or air service terminated honorably and who died on or after November 30, 1993.
  • The spouse, widow or widower, minor child, or permanently dependent child, and certain unmarried adult children of any of the above eligible veterans.

Another avenue discussed was to simply buy more land. This is logistically difficult, and the costs of buying land and repurposing it for the cemetery's purposes are very high. The cemetery is in the process of negotiating construction costs for a 37-acre project titled the Southern Expansion. This is expected to be completed around 2026 and cost an upwards of $274 million. This, however, simply isn't enough, as each acre only extends the life of the cemetery by about 3 months. One more, rather extreme option is to simply annex the Henderson Hall portion of Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, the military post that sits next to the cemetery. This is problematic, as this portion of the post holds several key buildings including a clinic, a commissary, child development center, and more.

The committee released the results of a survey conducted last year. The survey was open to anyone, and was mostly answered by service members, veterans, and family members.  Former Democratic Congressman Chet Edwards, one of the members of the committee, told Stars & Stripes, "What we need to know is, what do veterans and military retirees and American citizens think about changing eligibility standards?” Of those who responded to the survey, 93 percent wanted Arlington to remain open into the next century. About 40 percent agreed the Army should expand the cemetery and restrict eligibility. Most agreed to at least keep the cemetery open to Medal of Honor awardees and service members killed in action. Another survey will go online around March and April, most likely asking for opinions on the eligibility requirements.