Bill would block presidents with no military service from being buried in Arlington Cemetery

Abbie Bennett
June 10, 2020 - 1:18 pm
Wearing face masks to reduce the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus, soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Regiment, also called the "Old Guard," place U.S. flags in front of every grave site ahead of the Memorial Day weekend in Arlington National Cemetery.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A United States senator and combat veteran introduced a bill that would block presidents or vice presidents with no military service from being buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said the legislation is aimed at preserving the limited space left available in the cemetery for those who have served in the Armed Forces. The bill would not affect anyone already interred at the cemetery.

The U.S. Army recently recommended restricting eligibility for burial at Arlington National Cemetery even among veterans.

Late last summer, the Army proposed tightening eligibility requirements by restricting below-ground burial to service members killed in action, combat veterans awarded the Silver Star or above, Purple Heart recipients, former POWs and troops whose deaths were combat-related.

The Army said if such limitations were in place, troops could continue to be buried in the cemetery for the next 150 years. 

But the recommendations also included expanding burial in the cemetery to presidents and vice presidents, and above-ground burial in the cemetery to government officials who "made significant contributions to the nation's security at the highest levels of public service." 

Currently, any military retiree is eligible for below-ground burial at the cemetery and any veteran who left the service under honorable conditions can have their ashes inurned there.

"The hard reality is we are running out of space,” Executive Director of the Army National Military Cemeteries and Arlington National Cemetery Karen Durham-Aguilera said previously. “To keep Arlington National Cemetery open and active well into the future means we have to make some tough decisions that restrict the eligibility.”

Earlier this year, the cemetery was given permission from local officials to expand by 70 acres, adding another 60,000 burial plots. 

Duckworth said giving government officials with no service history the privilege of burial in Arlington -- even presidents or vice presidents -- would be "taking the place of actual veterans who served in uniform and their family members."

The senator argued that the recommendation to expand eligibility for top U.S. leaders who never wore the uniform were made without consulting the cemetery's advisory committee, which normally suggests changes for the resting place of thousands of U.S. troops. 

That advisory committee previously recommended that "eligibility for interment at Arlington National Cemetery be changed to more specifically identify with and honor the level of service and sacrifice." 

Duckworth said the cemetery is "hallowed ground" and if space was being limited among veterans who served, burial privileges should not be expanded to include those who never served. 

“Arlington National Cemetery is sacred ground for those who gave their lives to defend and protect this nation,” Duckworth said in a statement. “Sadly, as the number grows, it’s becoming clear that if Arlington National Cemetery is to continue operating as an active burial ground that honors those sacrifices well into the future, eligibility requirements must be restricted. This legislation makes sure that no burial space should be reserved for individuals who are not service members or veterans – even if he or she served as president or vice president of the United States.”

Presidents have been buried at Arlington before, though most have chosen to be buried in their home states. U.S. presidents buried at Arlington National Cemetery are John F. Kennedy and William Howard Taft.

The bill would amend U.S. code to prohibit presidents and vice presidents who did not serve in the Armed Forces from being buried in Arlington, and specifically does not allow those leaders to be considered veterans or service members by virtue of service under the Constitution as commander-in-chief. 

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Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.

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