For Mike Barbour, burial at Arlington National Cemetery is something of a family tradition, one he’s long intended to keep. Now, that might not be the case.
Barbour served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years, where he was an aviations electrician’s mate senior chief. He retired in 1994 and lives with his wife on the water in Abell, where he’s active with American Legion Post 221 in Avenue. In writing his will, Barbour said, he took the somewhat-unusual step of dictating exactly where he’d like to be buried.
Specifically, Barbour said, he stipulated that he wanted to be buried near his parents and grandfather at Arlington National — his father served in the Army, his mother volunteered for Navy service during World War II with the Women Activated for Volunteer Emergency Service, and his grandfather served in World War I.
“I thought it would be fitting if I’d be the next generation to come along and be interned there,” Barbour said. “So that was my initial thought before all this new consideration talk started.”
Barbour was referring to proposed eligibility changes for burial at the famed military cemetery, introduced in September by Acting Secretary of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy following a series of surveys conducted among service members to gauge their reactions and thoughts.
In an informational video detailing the proposed changes and their reasons for seeking them, spokespeople for the cemetery said there are currently 22 million living veterans, and nearly all of them are eligible for burial at Arlington. However, there are just 95,000 remaining spaces for interment. Even with recent land acquisitions, the cemetery is expected to fill up within the next few years.
“The hard reality is we are running out of space. To keep Arlington National Cemetery open and active well into the future means we have to make some tough decisions that restrict the eligibility,” said Executive Director of Army National Military Cemeteries and Arlington National Cemetery Karen Durham-Aguilera in a statement at the time of the proposal’s announcement.
The rule-making period takes at least nine months, and solicits public commentary, and also allows for review. Review and approval from both the Secretary of Defense and Office of Management and Budget is also a component, and needs to be completed before the public comment period on the Federal Register can begin. According to a frequently asked questions article compiled by nonprofit organization Military Officers Association of America, that comment period is estimated to begin in April 2020, although it “largely depends on the timeliness of the DoD and OMB.”
The video states that under the proposed changes, they will be able to preserve 1,000 interment sites for “current and future Medal of Honor recipients.”
The changes significantly affect who can be interred at the famed cemetery. The Army is proposing that in-ground burial be limited to those killed in action; recipients of the Silver Star and above who also served in combat; Purple Heart recipients; former prisoners of war; former presidents and vice presidents; and “veterans with combat service who also served out of uniform as a government official and made significant contributions to the nation’s security at the highest levels of public service.”
Inurnment remains an option for those who are eligible for retired pay from the military, but aren’t eligible for interment.
Barbour said in the absence of a projected date for the proposed changes to take effect, it’s hard to say yet if and how he’d be personally affected. In general, he said, the military could potentially consider enacting the proposal in a way that would “grandfather” existing service members in for eligibility, so only future service members would be affected.
“It’s like the military pay system,” Barbour explained. “You come in the military, here’s what you’re going to start with and we’re not looking at the old stuff. The day you’re starting, this is what the policy is, and anyone prior to that is covered under the old policy. That’s normally a way where you say that’s more or less fair to do for people. It’s like, here you go thinking you’re covered by the old policy and then they go changing it midstream.”
Another possibility, Barbour said, is the creation of “an auxiliary Arlington cemetery.” He compared it to Naval Air Station Patuxent River and Coast Guard Station St. Inigoes, the latter of which is part of Webster Outlying Field, an annex of the nearby larger military base.
“So for Arlington, instead of creating a new national cemetery you could have an Arlington adjunct,” Barbour said.
Another potential complicating factor Barbour noted is that existing military cemeteries fall under the oversight of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, while Arlington is run by the Army. The different governance, he said, could potentially make it difficult when it comes to creating ways for the VA cemeteries to participate on the same level. The changes proposed for Arlington don’t affect VA cemeteries.
“Everybody who goes over and serves is of the same ilk,” Barbour said. “They’ve basically written a blank check for their lives to the U.S. government, so they’re in harm’s way no matter what position they’re performing duties in. Irrespective of where they’re at in the chain of command, they should be given the same respect. … If they served in theater, whether they were a private or a general, I don’t think there should be any difference between the two.”
Barbour said under the proposals, he would not qualify as he was not ever in combat despite being deployed to the different theaters: “I didn’t go in and get shot at,” Barbour explained. He also said he personally disagreed with the stipulation to include those who didn’t see combat, but went on to provide distinguished civil service.
While he’d strongly prefer interment for himself, Barbour said if he only has the option of inurnment when his time comes he’d accept that, so as to remain close to his family’s previous generations. Inurned service members receive the same honors as interred ones do, “and it looks like they’ve done a pretty nice job” of lending above-ground burial the same prestige, he said.
Still, Barbour said, it is a little difficult to reconcile the thought of the proposed changes coming to fruition and thus preventing him from the interment at Arlington he’d wanted from the time he enlisted.
“If I’d been told before I came in the service that in 1973 they had changed the criteria to what they’re suggesting now, I would have been great with it,” Barbour said. “But here it is for 20 years in the service you’re thinking, ‘OK, well I can be interred if I make it a career and do a full term, this is something I’ll have as a privilege,’ and you might even say it’s a right when you look at it. But then again, they told me I’d have free medical and dental for life if I stayed in the military and retired, and that’s not the case.”
Changing the plot
In Charles County, nonprofit organization VConnections holds coffee meetups every Monday and Wednesday for local veterans in La Plata and Waldorf Chick-fil-A restaurants, respectively. At one recent rainy Wednesday morning meetup, the crew spent time discussing what the changes could mean, and what alternatives could be considered.
“My thought is everyone goes to battle,” veteran Linda Sims said. “So to say that you’re quote-unquote not worthy of this sacred ground, but you’re OK to go over to a different cemetery … it seems unfair to those families.”
“It doesn’t make you less of a hero,” Charles “Pete” Williams added.
Williams proposed that perhaps there are ways to bring the same level of prestige to interment at other military cemeteries, like nearby Cheltenham Veterans Cemetery in Prince George’s County. While she feels you can’t lend other cemeteries the gravitas that Arlington’s long history naturally gives it, Sims said, dignitaries like presidents and high-ranking members of the military could bring some light to those smaller sites by electing them as their final resting place.
While she was enlisted, Sims said, she was part of a traveling detail that would go to neighboring states to assist at military funerals. They’d perform the 21-gun salute, like one would see at Arlington, so while they would not be buried in the same ground, they could still receive the same ritual and honor that goes into being interred at Arlington. It could also be worth considering, some in the group noted, conducting military burials specific to the branch in which one served or allowing those funeral details to come to services at private cemeteries.
“It could set a different precedent, and I think it would change the thought process,” Sims said. “So other people would say, ‘Oh, I didn’t even know this was here!’ It may be more convenient, or offer better parking or be more picturesque, even.”
“I agree,” Williams said. “If they started treating Cheltenham the same way they treat Arlington, then maybe people would say ‘Well, I’m right there,’ and choose to go there instead of fighting for the spot at Arlington.”
Veteran Robert Wells said he and his wife had intended to be laid to rest at Arlington after “donating their bodies to science” and being cremated and returned to their son. Because they would be inurned, Wells and his wife would both still be eligible for final repose at Arlington.
“I can understand the practical side, that they’re going to run out of space eventually,” Wells said.