Arlington Rules Revival: Qualification for Burial at the Cemetery Is Being Questioned and Congress Is Set to Restrict Access to War Heroes Who Have Earned Their Place in History

Article excerpt

Qualification for burial at the cemetery is being questioned and Congress is set to restrict access to war heroes who have earned their place in history.

Inside the sprawling complex of the Pentagon, nothing has been as controversial in recent years as the furor that erupted after news stories questioned the process for granting burial waivers at Arlington National Cemetery. From the beginning, a small cadre of military lawyers warned that the likelihood of a "scandal" was predictable but avoidable if authorities would resist political pressure, real or imagined, and just follow the rules.

But it wasn't to be because, like beauty, the meaning of those rules was in the eye of the beholder -- the interpretation colored by the contents of each case jacket and the requests of family members seeking the waivers.

The compassionate reasons cited by former Army secretary Togo West (now secretary-designate at the Department of Veterans Affairs) to justify the granting of a waiver for one Tuskegee airman were not applied to an earlier request by the family of another Tuskegee airman. Why? What was going on in the news at the time, and did it become a political factor in the decisionmaking process?

What about a waiver granted to a heroic Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, agent slain in the line of duty? Why was that former soldier waived through, even though other DEA candidates with similar backgrounds were rejected? How about the waiver for a young female reservist killed in a traffic accident on her way to work? Why was she approved for burial at Arlington when a Bronze Star recipient who stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day was rejected? How was it that a National Guardsman who died in a training accident was allowed to be buried at Arlington even though West knew he was not eligible?

In other words, beyond the deaths themselves, was something going on at the time of each of these waiver requests that turned otherwise rigid rules into politically malleable guidelines? Was it part of a pattern?

Such questions are not meant to cast doubt on any who now rest in Arlington's hallowed grounds. Rather, officials are being asked to focus on issues that, nothwithstanding the national controversy that erupted after Insight's first report of suspected irregularities, still have not been answered. And they must be, according to congressional and military officials, so veterans may be assured that in the future the rules will not be interpreted haphazardly or in any way that might be perceived to have been based on politics, money or favoritism.

So what has been the official process? To begin, most veterans and their families have never heard of waivers. Some learned that such waivers sometimes were possible, but that interpretation of the rules depended on which people were in a position of authority to sign off on such requests.

Case jackets containing all of an estimated 69 waivers have yet to be made public--and thus the background materials to determine why any or each was approved cannot be examined here. Nonetheless, a cursory review of a few cases based on publicly available information has raised troubling questions among top military brass and bipartisan investigators contacted by Insight.

But first, a review of what is known about the unusually high numbers of waivers at Arlington during the Clinton administration era and a series of allegations and suspicions raised by senior military and cemetery sources concerned that strict rules requiring a Silver Star or Purple Heart, or career military service and honorable discharge, were being ignored.

Internal military records secured by Insight show how deep such concerns were and how high up the chain of command warnings were issued to stop a growing pattern of waivers that 1) did not fit the criteria, 2) were not being applied equitably, 3) were sure to cause concern among veterans and their families, 4) were deemed politically insensitive and 5) in one case involved a waiver for an unqualified living person, something grossly contrary to regulations. …