Army proposes changes to who qualifies for burial at Arlington National Cemetery

There is a nationwide effort to increase veteran access to burial options.

October 2, 2019, 4:14 AM

The Army is proposing changes to who is eligible for burial at Arlington National Cemetery amid a nationwide effort to increase access to burial options for America's veterans as existing cemeteries, including Arlington, run out of space.

According to the proposed changes published by the Army last week, service members who die on active duty, but not in combat, would no longer be eligible for burial at Arlington. There are fewer than 95,000 remaining burial spaces there for nearly all of the 22 million living service members and veterans currently eligible, the Army said.

The proposed changes come as a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found additional actions are needed to increase veterans' burial access across the country. Currently, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that 92% of veterans have reasonable access to burial options, defined as a national or state veterans' cemetery located within 75 miles of the veterans' home, the GAO said.

While the National Cemetery Administration has plans to establish 18 new national cemeteries in urban and rural areas to increase that access, the GAO described the office's progress as "limited" and "years behind its original schedule for opening new cemeteries." The primary challenge delaying the completion of cemeteries has been acquiring suitable land, the GAO found.

A bluejay sits on a headstone in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, June 24, 2019.
Elizabeth Fraser/U.S. Army

Arlington National Cemetery, the final resting place of more than 400,000 service members and their family members, is expected to break ground on a 37-acre expansion next year.

But that change will not be enough to address the shortage in burial sites there. Congress directed the Army to revise its eligibility criteria to ensure the cemetery could remain an active burial ground. At the current pace of burials, Arlington could be closed to new interments by the mid-2050s, including Medal of Honor recipients, the Army said.

The new guidelines proposed by the Army set aside 1,000 grave sites for current and future Medal of Honor recipients. Below-ground interment would be reserved for service members killed in action, recipients of the Silver Star and higher awards who served in combat, Purple Heart recipients, combat-related deaths and former prisoners of war.

The United States Soldiers' and Airmen's Home National Cemetery, Washington, D.C., June 11, 2019.
Elizabeth Fraser/U.S. Army

Presidents and vice presidents, as well as "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," would also qualify.

"Arlington National Cemetery is a national shrine for all Americans, but especially those who have served our great nation," said Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy. "We must ensure it can honor those we have lost for many years to come."

The proposed changes will now begin the federal government's public rule-making process, which includes soliciting feedback from the public. The full list of proposed changes is available online.

The proposed changes would not affect previously scheduled services, veterans' burial benefits or veteran eligibility at VA national and state cemeteries, the Army said.