U.S. Army photo by Elizabeth Fraser / Arlington National Cemetery / released
The Millennium Project at Arlington National Cemetery will open for new burials soon. More than a decade of construction, funding delays, and redesign are complete. But these 27,000 new gravesites will only extend the active life of the cemetery, which buries an average of nearly 30 service members or spouses per day, for a few more years.
With so much attention on Arlington cemetery lately, MOAA held a webinar to discuss topics surrounding military burials, including the capacity issues at ANC. Ms. Renea Yates, deputy superintendent for cemetery administration, Maj. Shannon Way, and Ms. Stephanie Rush from Arlington National Cemetery discussed the capacity issue and answered webinar participants' questions. Ideas, such as pre-registering for burial before a servicemember's passing, provided for some colorful conversation. The cemetery representatives also talked about the initial findings of a nationwide eligibility survey.
While expansion to nearby lands won't keep the cemetery open for new burials 150 years into the future, it provides a significant number of currently eligible veterans an opportunity to execute their desired and expected end-of-life plans. MOAA members continue to express distaste for an eligibility restriction to preserve these gravesites for future servicemembers whose grandparents may not even be born yet.
Expansion to new land, contiguous or not, is the preferred method for extending the life of Arlington as an active cemetery. Further, forecasting anything centuries into the future is simply unrealistic, and should not be the basis for modifications in the present. Changes to burial preferences or new mass casualty conflicts could easily alter those projections. There is no avoiding the inevitable - the cemetery will be full at some point, one way or another.
Nonetheless, lawmakers are moving ahead with instructions for the Secretary of the Army to change eligibility. The National Defense Authorization Act will prompt a debate this fall on the topic, which will largely be informed by the recently concluded eligibility survey by the Advisory Committee on Arlington National Cemetery.
The survey leans toward changing eligibility. With more than 200,000 participants, the initial response trends suggest a couple of major preferences: 1) the cemetery remain open for new burials “well into the future” and 2) eligibility should be restricted to achieve that goal.
The distinguishing eligibility factor, based on the latest advisory committee meeting, may be some qualifying length or type of service within the retiree population. Of course, this remains up for debate.
There are many issues with changing the eligibility criteria beyond altering current burial plans for many veterans. With some of the stricter proposals, war heroes who perhaps never received recognition for valorous service with a medal could be excluded. The demographics of those who were eligible to serve in combat has changed, and thus certain groups could be unintentionally disenfranchised. And what is to be done with those who inevitably don't hear of the change, and are then caught in an incredibly unfortunate situation at an emotionally stressful time. Eligibility changes will surely cause quite a bit of frustration, hence many veterans' groups opposition to the change.
The final survey results will be released soon, so keep an eye out for more information on this critical piece of the puzzle moving forward.