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Military & Veterans' Issues

Arlington National Cemetery Is Filling Up, So The Army May Limit Who Can Be Buried There

Kathi Dugan, 73, retired from the Navy after 30 years. Her parents are both buried at Arlington National Cemetery, but Dugan may not be able to join them if the Army proceeds with a plan to cut eligibility for in-ground burials.
Kathi Dugan, 73, retired from the Navy after 30 years. Her parents are both buried at Arlington National Cemetery, but Dugan may not be able to join them if the Army proceeds with a plan to cut eligibility for in-ground burials.

When Kathi Dugan retired from the Navy in 1999, she hoped for one final military honor: burial at Arlington National Cemetery, her name engraved on one of the iconic white headstones.

“I come from a very long line of Navy and Marine Corps folks,” Dugan said as she looked out over the rows of grave sites. “My dad was buried here, my uncle, my aunt, my mom. One of my brothers will be buried here. We decided as a family to do that.”

When the time comes, Dugan imagines her flag-draped casket on a horse-drawn caisson as it travels among the headstones. A bugler will play taps. A rifle party will fire a salute.

“To me, it's a fitting way of closing one's career, with honor and dignity,” the New London, Connecticut native said.

But Dugan may never realize her vision. The Army is moving forward with a plan to limit in-ground burials at Arlington. Under the proposal, burials will be allowed only for service members who received the highest combat awards.

That’s because Arlington is running out of space, even though a new expansion project will add over 80,000 new grave sites.

“The expansion, without changing eligibility, will only take us to about the 2060’s,” said Karen Durham-Aguilera, the cemetery’s executive director. “So to be open well into the future, which we defined as 150 years, it’s both the expansion and the change in eligibility criteria.”

She said the latest expansion project means the cemetery has now used all of the available land — creatively.

“We also have maximized all the possibilities within [Arlington] literally by taking utilities that were underground, and we put them under roads,” Durham-Aguilera said. “I can tell you as an engineer, you would almost never do that. But we did it so that we could open up new burial space.”

Under the Army proposal to cut eligibility, veterans without major combat awards can still be laid to rest at Arlington, but only if they choose cremation.

“They may be eligible only above ground, but they're still eligible here at Arlington National Cemetery until we run out of that above ground space,” Durham-Aguilera said.

But some veterans advocacy groups said the restrictions are unfair.

Mark Belinsky of the Military Officers Association of America said as Arlington fills up, the government should build another similar national cemetery somewhere else where veterans can receive full military honors.

“We're on the edge of seeing another benefit reduced, born on the backs of the military community,” Belinsky said. “If the changes occur, it's something less. It’s a reduced benefit.”

Belinsky said limiting eligibility to only those veterans who receive Purple Hearts or Silver Stars seems to put a premium on Army combat service and isn’t fair to veterans of other branches.

“As an Army veteran myself, close combat is incredibly dangerous, and does require valor,” Belinsky said. “But so does service in the air, or service underway at sea, or under the sea, or in a strategic nuclear force, or in a hospital lab fighting COVID.”

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Dugan, 73, said she hasn’t fully come to grips with the notion that she won’t qualify for an Arlington in-ground burial. She said she has religious concerns about cremation, plus that’s not what she wants. She said veterans like her should be grandfathered so that the changes would only impact new service members.

“To me, this was a promise," Dugan said. "I mean, it's like, sealed with the patriotism and the blood and the sweat.”

Dugan supports the idea of a new national cemetery, even though she said Arlington could never be replicated.

Durham-Aguilera, the cemetery director, said veterans do have other choices, like state military cemeteries and more than 150 national cemeteries around the country run by the Department of Veterans Affairs. But she said the criteria for burials at Arlington has to change.

“We want to be open,” Durham-Aguilera said. “We want to have that opportunity for that 5-year-old who's going to raise their hand one day to serve this great nation. So to be able to do that, we need to plan for our future.”

She said she expects the Army to finalize the new eligibility rules by the end of the year.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.