Army: Arlington National Cemetery Is At a 'Critical Point' for Space

From a vantage point at the Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Va., Col. Michael Peloquin, Director of Engineering at Arlington National Cemetery, explains the cemetery's expansion. (JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES)
From a vantage point at the Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Va., Col. Michael Peloquin, Director of Engineering at Arlington National Cemetery, explains the cemetery's expansion. (JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES)

WASHINGTON -- At the Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, on Wednesday, Army Col. Michael Peloquin pointed at a map stretched out on the concrete, and then motioned toward an expanse of grass below, directing Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Ha., to take a look.

"Envision this hillside covered in white headstones," said Peloquin, director of engineering for Arlington National Cemetery. "We want to replicate the look and the feel [of Arlington National Cemetery] in this new space."

The area -- a proposed southern expansion -- would create space for an additional 40,000 to 60,000 gravesites and allow Arlington to remain an active cemetery into the 2050s, said Karen Durham-Aguilera, director of Army National Military Cemeteries.

But it's still a ways off. There are land acquisition deals to go through with Arlington County, the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Virginia Department of Transportation, among other entities, and the cemetery would need an estimated $274 million for construction. The earliest Arlington could start burials on the site is 2023, Durham-Aguilera said.

A tour of the proposed expansion site was part of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing Wednesday with Arlington staff, the purpose of which was to hear about the cemetery's capacity issues and learn what funding, personnel and space will be needed for the future.

"I know there are issues: land issues, budget issues, space issues to work through," said Moran, chairman of the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Subcommittee. "I welcome the great responsibility of helping preserve and protect Arlington, and ensuring -- for as long as possible -- this ground is open and active for the burial and inurnment of those who have served us all."

Arlington leaders indicated the cemetery would need large injections of funding in the future to expand its space and maintain its current footprint.

The continuing resolution that funds Arlington, as well as most other federal agencies and programs, expires April 28, and lawmakers are racing to piece together spending bills and avoid a government shutdown. Moran said Wednesday that he was hopeful Congress would "be able to avoid a continuing resolution and get out of the business of simply flat-lining and failing to prioritize appropriations requests."

Short-term continuing resolutions have kept Arlington's budget level in recent years, despite it adding more space and having to meet enhanced security requirements. Additionally, the cemetery has a repair and maintenance backlog of $115 million, Durham-Aguilera said.

The cemetery received $8 million above its previous budget in fiscal year 2016. Some of the money went to "very dramatic and unexpected" infrastructure repairs to the welcome center's sewer lines, said Katharine Kelley, superintendent of Arlington.

She also said the historic structures in the cemetery "need all sorts of attention" from specialized craftsmen, who are expensive.

The cemetery is set to finish an expansion effort this fall, the Millennium Project, which will add 27 acres and approximately 28,000 burial sites. Durham-Aguilera said Arlington would start using the space this August. The added space will require about $200,000 more in operation and maintenance costs each year, Kelley estimated.

Even with that expansion, the cemetery will reach capacity in the 2040s, unless more space is added. That means a veteran from the 1991 Gulf War who lives to normal life expectancy would not have the option of being buried at Arlington, Durham-Aguilera said.

She also mentioned the idea of tightening the already strict eligibility requirements to be inurned or buried in the cemetery. No details of any proposed eligibility requirements were offered Wednesday, but Durham-Aguilera said it might be part of future discussions with Congress and military and veterans organizations.

"The Army recognizes that the nation is at a critical point in the cemetery's history," she said. "As of today, the cemetery cannot achieve that future without physical expansions and/or changes to eligibility."

Durham-Aguilera conceded limiting eligibility criteria further "is a hard topic."

Kelley said Arlington was working on a master plan for the cemetery, a draft of which will be released later this year.

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