ARLINGTON, Va. -- In 1998, burial space at the country's most prestigious resting place for servicemembers and their spouses was becoming scarce, and officials worried they would run out of room at Arlington National Cemetery in about 25 years.
After years of searching for more space, Defense Department officials have garnered more than 70 acres of land to expand the sprawling 600-plus-acre hillside on the west bank of the Potomac River overlooking the nation's capital.
The fiscal 2000 National Defense Authorization Act contained a provision expanding the cemetery.
"We estimated that we would run out of grave space between the year 2025 and 2030," said cemetery superintendent John Metzler Jr. "So one of the things we were directed to do was to develop a new master plan and to look at not only what we needed to do internally to maintain the cemetery, but also how we could look at expanding the cemetery beyond the year of 2025."
Officials searched around the cemetery in all directions to see who owned the land, what it was currently being used for, and the likelihood of being able to acquire the land.
"As a result of all this, we've been able to acquire three parcels of land so far, including the 44-acre Navy Annex that lies to our south," Metzler noted. "We also acquired a piece of property inside the cemetery that had belonged to the National Park Service, which was being used as a buffer zone between the Arlington House and the cemetery. There was a 24-acre tract, and we were able to acquire half of that -- 12 acres."
The Arlington House mansion is where Gen. Robert E. Lee lived before the Civil War. After he joined the Confederacy, the plantation mansion was confiscated at the outbreak of the Civil War and converted to headquarters for the Union's Army of the Potomac. The grounds were used as a burial site for families that were too poor to claim their deceased loved ones from the battlefield.
Today, the mansion house is restored as a museum, and the grounds are considered a sacred shrine.
The cemetery also will use a 17-acre tract of land that's now a picnic area at adjacent Fort Myer, Metzler noted. "We're also looking at relocating our utilities inside the cemetery from underneath the grass-tufted area and placing them underneath our roads," he said.
With these initiatives in place, Metzler said, Arlington would be able to continue operations until at least 2060, and that would include development for both ground and columbarium burials.
He pointed out that the cemetery averages 26 burials a day, with 6,452 burials held during fiscal 2004. More than 292,000 people are buried at Arlington.
Eligibility for burial at Arlington includes:
- Anyone who dies on active duty;
- Any retired veteran with 20 years service or greater from the regular
- Reservists who have one period of active duty service other than training, who are aged 60 or older, and have a total of 20 years or more; and - Honorably discharged recipients of the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star and Purple.
Other eligible servicemembers include former prisoners of war and veterans who are medically disabled with a 30 percent rating or greater before Oct. 1, 1949, as a result of their military service and were discharged for that reason. The spouses of these servicemembers are eligible for burial alongside their husbands or wives.
Metzler said any veteran with one period of active duty service ending with an honorable discharge is entitled to have his or her cremated remains placed into the Arlington Cemetery columbarium. Ashes of their spouses can be interred in the same location.
Caissons are authorized for any officer or Medal of Honor recipient. E-9s are included in some cases, varying with each service branch, Metzler noted.
Several little-known historic sites are located at the cemetery. For example, there are two different locations for remains from the Civil War era. One has "USCT" engraved on the headstones, which stands for U.S. Colored Troops.
"We have several sections within the cemetery where the predominated burials are USCT," Metzler noted. "Plus, we have the former residents of Freedmen's Village. These were blacks who would be called in today's terminology 'homeless.' They had no place to go. They'd come off the plantations, had no education, no money, no means to support themselves, and the government created a bureau -- the Freedmen's Bureau -- to address this issue."
Metzler said six villages were constructed in the Washington area. One was constructed on the grounds of Arlington Cemetery. "For some 30 years, this village existed, and over that period of time, 3,500 residents of Freedmen's Village passed away and are buried here in Arlington Cemetery in Section 27," he said.
There's a plaque in Section 8 designated in memory of American Indians. The inscription reads, "The Viet-Nam Era Vets. We are honored to remember you. The indigenous people of America. Dedicated to our Indian warriors and their brothers who have served us so well."
President John F. Kenney's gravesite and the Tomb of the Unknowns are the most visited sites on the grounds of the cemetery. Metzler noted these sites draw about 4 million visitors each year.