MOAA testified at Thursday's House Armed Services Military Personnel subcommittee hearing as lawmakers consider ways to address Arlington National Cemetery's capacity issues.
Forrest Allen, MOAA's associate director of Government Relations, testified alongside leaders from Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, and the Air Force Association. The cemetery is slated to run out of available space by the year 2043 if steps are not taken to expand the land or change eligibility requirements.
“Preserving the promise of the cemetery is to resolve to allow those in the currently eligible population with expectations of interment or inurnment at those hallowed grounds to execute their end-of-life plans,” Allen said.
MOAA and other veteran service organizations met with the Arlington National Cemetery Advisory Committee earlier this year to provide input from the veteran and military community. Most people surveyed feel strongly about keeping Arlington National Cemetery open and active well into the future, said Katharine Kelly, the cemetery's superintendent.
The Army will be releasing another survey hoping to better understand veterans' opinions of eligibility restrictions within the next few weeks.
Lawmakers weighed three options for preserving and continuing veteran burial at Arlington National Cemetery during the hearing. Here's what's under review:
Arlington is currently undergoing a 27-acre expansion with plans to add an addition 40 acres of adjacent federal land by 2022. Those expansion projects will only allow for veteran burials until 2043 though. There is an option to expand further, but some are concerned that would detract from Arlington National Cemetery's current aesthetic.
Lawmakers are considering restricting eligibility for burial at Arlington National Cemetery to servicemembers killed in action, prisoners of war, and those who received the Medal of Honor or Purple Heart.
“As a military retiree … I want to preserve Arlington Cemetery first and foremost for those who were killed in action,” said Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., who served as a Marine Corps officer.
Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., a retired Air Force one-star general, said he agreed that the cemetery should remain open to those killed in action or who earn the Medal of Honor.
“We should put a higher priority for those individuals at Arlington,” Bacon said. “It seems like that place should be reserved for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for the country.”
Most VSOs and their members disagree with limiting eligibility. If it must become restricted, consideration should be given to those who served at least 24 months on active duty, said Col. Keith Zuegel, USAF (Ret), the senior director of government relations at the Air Force Association.
“But not at the exclusion of the members we represent or those that are honorably serving today and that have made plans to be honored and laid to rest at Arlington Cemetery,” he added
A new national cemetery
Lawmakers also presented the idea for a new national cemetery. While some VSOs say other locations might not be as prestigious as Arlington with its placement overlooking the nation's capital, Allen said MOAA supports looking at some options.
“Locations such as Gettysburg or Quantico easily could serve as dignified burial sites with the same degree of repute bestowed upon the original,” Allen said.
Katie Lathrop is the Digital Content Specialist at MOAA and the daughter of a currently serving Army Officer. Follow her on twitter @Katie.F.Lathrop.