Presidents Who Didn't Serve in Uniform Shouldn't Be Buried at Arlington, Senator Says

Over Memorial Day Weekend, Columbarium Court 3 of Arlington National Cemetery.
Over Memorial Day Weekend, Columbarium Court 3 of Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, May 23, 2020. (U.S. Army/Elizabeth Fraser)

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran and Purple Heart recipient, introduced a bill Wednesday designed to stop an extension of burial benefits at Arlington National Cemetery to U.S. presidents or vice presidents, regardless of their military service.

The Illinois Democrat said Wednesday that recommendations made last year by the U.S. Army that would drastically reduce eligibility for in-ground burials at Arlington but expand eligibility for some civilians, including presidents or vice presidents, would "take the place of actual veterans who served in uniform and their family members."

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To preserve the space left at the cemetery, Duckworth said, no burial plot should be reserved for non-veterans.

"Arlington National Cemetery is sacred ground for those who gave their lives to defend and protect this nation," Duckworth said in a statement.

Last year, the Army proposed that eligibility for below-ground burials at Arlington be restricted to U.S. service members killed in action and combat veterans who earned the Purple Heart or were awarded the Silver Star or higher.

Former prisoners of war would be eligible, as well as troops whose deaths were combat-related.

But the recommendations also include presidents and vice presidents, as well as combat veterans who served as government officials and "made significant contributions to the nation's security at the highest levels of public service."

Army officials say the limits will allow the cemetery to remain open for another 150 years.

Currently, with military retirees eligible for ground burials and veterans who left service under honorable conditions eligible to have their ashes contained in the cemetery's columbarium or niche wall, the Army estimates the cemetery will be full within 25 years.

Roughly 7,000 interments are conducted at the Virginia cemetery each year.

Duckworth charges that the recommendation to extend eligibility to presidents and vice presidents was made outside the normal process and without consulting the committee that drafts recommendations for the cemetery, the Advisory Committee on Arlington National Cemetery.

"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," she said.

The only U.S. presidents buried at Arlington National Cemetery are John F. Kennedy and William Howard Taft. Taft served as Secretary of War, and later, after the presidency, chief justice to the U.S. Supreme Court. Kennedy was a combat veteran, serving in the U.S. Naval Reserve during World War II.

Two of the four living former presidents are veterans: former President Jimmy Carter, who graduated from the Naval Academy and served in the U.S. Navy, and former President George W. Bush, a member of the Texas Air National Guard who spent two years on active duty during training.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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