Arlington Cemetery Running Out of Space to Bury Iraq, Afghan Veterans

Arlington National Cemetery (Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley, U.S. Coast Guard)
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Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, where Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are laid to rest, will soon have to close to new burials unless eligibility rules are restricted or the grounds are expanded, Army officials said Thursday.

"We are filling up every single day" at the 154-year-old historic site across the Potomac from Washington, D.C., said Karen Durham-Aguilera, executive director of Army National Military Cemeteries.

"Within the next few years, Section 60, known for the recent wars, will be closed. This is on our mind every day," Durham-Aguilera told a hearing of the House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel.

Section 60 would be the first to close to new burials; projections are that the entire cemetery will have to close to above and below ground interments in the 2040s, said Katharine Kelley, the cemetery's superintendent.

Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump have all stopped at the 14-acre Section 60 on national holidays to honor those who most recently made the ultimate sacrifice.

Last May, Trump stopped at the grave of Marine 1st Lt. Robert Kelly, son of White House Chief of Staff and retired Marine Gen. John Kelly. Robert Kelly was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.

"Without changes to the eligibility requirements and the physical footprint, Arlington National Cemetery will not be a burial option for most who served in the Gulf War or any conflict since, regardless of the contributions, achievements or valor," Durham-Aguilera said.

Each week, she said, about 150 burials take place at Arlington. Last year, there were more than 7,100.

"We can't serve the full population [that] is eligible today" for burial at Arlington, Kelley said, and the possibilities for expanding the cemetery's grounds are severely limited.

Currently, most honorably discharged veterans may request Arlington as their final resting place, but the eligibility rules are lengthy. (The list of rules can be found here.)

Veterans groups are generally opposed to eligibility restrictions to extend the active life of Arlington that would limit burials to those killed in the line of duty; recipients of the Medal of Honor and other high awards; and prisoners of war.

"We should save a select number of spaces for those individuals, but not change the eligibility rules at the exclusion of those serving today," retired Col. Keith Zuegel, a senior director at the Air Force Association, told the committee.

Forrest Allen, associate director of government relations at the Military Officers Association of America, said current eligibility rules should be maintained while options for expanding the grounds are explored.

"It is important to respect end-of-life plans for currently eligible veterans and take reasonable steps to extend the cemetery for future service members," Allen said.

Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., chairman of the subcommittee on military personnel, said that more than 400,000 veterans have been interred at Arlington since the Civil War, but "unfortunately, the cemetery is rapidly running out of space. If nothing is done, in a matter of 23 short years, the cemetery will be closed for new burials.

"If we're going to keep Arlington there for generations to come," he said, "we're going to have to make some tough decisions."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.