Taps for Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery?

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY TOM COT­TON The writer, a Repub­li­can, rep­re­sents Arkansas in the U.S. Se­nate and is a for­mer U.S. Army cap­tain.

On Memo­rial Day, Amer­i­cans turn our thoughts to the na­tion’s fallen he­roes and one place above all: Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery. It’s the most fa­mous and beloved of our na­tion’s ceme­ter­ies, at­tract­ing more than 4 mil­lion vis­i­tors a year. I once served at Ar­ling­ton with the U.S. Army’s Old Guard, which per­forms mil­i­tary fu­neral hon­ors there. In a sign of our na­tional fas­ci­na­tion with Ar­ling­ton, the sin­gle most fre­quent ques­tion I get when I speak around the coun­try is about my ser­vice with the Old Guard. Like­wise, Arkansans con­sis­tently rank the ceme­tery as the high­light of their vis­its to Wash­ing­ton.

But the ceme­tery is run­ning out of space — and fast. If we don’t act soon, the fu­ture of this na­tional jewel will be at risk.

Ar­ling­ton was born in the tragedy of the Civil War. The ceme­tery was orig­i­nally Gen. Robert E. Lee’s plan­ta­tion. Lee made his fate­ful de­ci­sion to re­sign from the U.S. Army and join the Con­fed­er­acy af­ter a sleep­less night in what’s now known as the Ar­ling­ton House in the ceme­tery. The Union shortly there­after seized the plan­ta­tion, which oc­cu­pied the crit­i­cal high ground above Wash­ing­ton.

In 1864, as the Union war dead piled up in Wash­ing­ton, Union Quar­ter­mas­ter Gen­eral Mont­gomery Meigs pro­posed that 200 acres from Lee’s plan­ta­tion be con­verted into a ceme­tery. As a fur­ther re­buke, Meigs or­dered the con­struc­tion of a burial vault in Mrs. Lee’s gar­den, where the re­mains of 2,111 un­known Union dead were in­terred.

While Lee made no at­tempt to re­claim his old plan­ta­tion, his old­est son did, pre­vail­ing in the Supreme Court and then sell­ing own­er­ship back to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. And, grad­u­ally, the Ar­ling­ton we know to­day took shape, and the land it oc­cu­pied ex­panded. As the na­tion’s wounds from the Civil War healed, Ar­ling­ton re­flected that heal­ing, ac­cept­ing Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers for burial, as well as rein­tern­ments from the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War and the War of 1812.

Af­ter World War I, at­ten­tion turned once again to Ar­ling­ton as Amer­ica buried its 116,000 war dead, in­clud­ing many un­known re­mains. In­spired by cer­e­monies in Lon­don and Paris hon­or­ing uniden­ti­fied sol­diers, many Amer­i­cans be­gan to ad­vo­cate for our own shrine of un­knowns, which was ded­i­cated in the new Memo­rial Am­phithe­ater in 1921. Yet by 1980, the de­mand for burial space was so great that the ceme­tery be­gan build­ing one of nine colum­baria to hold some 45,000 cre­mated re­mains. To­day, the ceme­tery is the fi­nal rest­ing place for 400,000 souls.

But Ar­ling­ton is not just a tourist site; it’s an ac­tive ceme­tery with dozens of fu­ner­als daily, in all their ma­jes­tic solem­nity. It’s a mov­ing sight. A cas­ket on a horse-drawn cais­son rolls slowly to­ward the gravesite, fol­lowed by dozens of ser­vice­men in im­mac­u­late dress uni­form. The cas­ket team low­ers the re­mains onto the mock-up and stretches the flag out and level di­rectly over it. Af­ter a brief ser­vice, the fam­ily rises, the of­fi­cers present arms, and a seven-man team fires a three-vol­ley salute — three sets of seven shots. Then, a lone bu­gler plays taps. Once the fam­ily sits, the cas­ket team folds the flag, which the of­fi­cer in charge presents to the next of kin.

Burial in Ar­ling­ton is it­self a heal­ing process — and one the fam­i­lies of the fallen de­serve. That’s why it’s so im­por­tant that we pre­serve Ar­ling­ton for the next gen­er­a­tion. But if cur­rent trends con­tinue, the ceme­tery will run out of space in just 25 years. In other words, vet­er­ans of ev­ery con­flict from the Gulf War on­ward can­not hope to be buried there, even if they earn the na­tion’s high­est dec­o­ra­tion, the Medal of Honor.

In Au­gust, the ceme­tery will com­plete its Mil­len­nium Project, which will add 27 acres and 28,000 burial sites, ex­tend­ing the ceme­tery’s ca­pac­ity to 2041. An­other un­der­tak­ing, known as the South­ern Ex­pan­sion project, be­gan in 2014 and re­mains in the plan­ning stages. It would add 40,000 to 60,000 burial sites, mostly in the area sur­round­ing the nearby Air Force Memo­rial, and ex­tend the ceme­tery’s ca­pac­ity for 10 years more.

But to do this, the ceme­tery must buy land from Ar­ling­ton County and Vir­ginia, as well as ad­dress trans­porta­tion chal­lenges with these au­thor­i­ties. Congress must sup­port these ef­forts, par­tic­u­larly with fund­ing for the land ac­qui­si­tions, and look into whether the ceme­tery should ex­pand to ad­ja­cent fed­eral land on be­half of our na­tion, our fallen war­riors and their fam­i­lies.

As the war that cre­ated Ar­ling­ton broke out, Pres­i­dent Abra­ham Lin­coln called for suc­cor upon “the mys­tic chords of mem­ory, stretch­ing from ev­ery bat­tle­field, and pa­triot grave, to ev­ery liv­ing heart and hearth­stone, all over this broad land.” Those chords stretch still from Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery and ought to be swelled again by pa­triot graves yet to come.

KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS

A sol­dier from the U.S. Army’s Old Guard places flags at head­stones at Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery on Thurs­day.

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