STATEMENT OF THE HONORABLE TOGO D. WEST, JR.
SECRETARY OF THE ARMY
ACTING SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
BEFORE THE HOUSE VETERANS' AFFAIRS SUBCOMMITTEE
ON OVERSIGHT AND INVESTIGATIONS
January 28, 1998
Thank you, Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee for the opportunity to be here today to discuss the process by which the Secretary of the Army authorizes burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
As you know, in an effort to prolong the active life of this national cemetery, the eligibility criteria for burial at Arlington, in effect since 1967, are highly restrictive. In an attempt to temper those strict rules with human compassion, Presidents and Secretaries of the Army have, on rare occasion, exercised their authority to waive the governing regulation and authorize other deserving individuals to be interred at Arlington. This authority has been exercised sparingly and judiciously over 30 years. For example, of the approximately 25,000 funerals at Arlington in the past 5 years, only 69 of them occurred pursuant to a waiver.
The Army followed a set procedure for processing requests for waivers during my tenure as Secretary of the Army. All action on requests is initiated with the Superintendent of the Cemetery. The occasional request that was addressed to a different office within the Army was returned to the cemetery for action. The Superintendent serves as the fact-finder, working directly with the family to gather the necessary information regarding military service, awards, plot locations of previously buried family members, and a justification for granting an exception. Once the Superintendent has obtained the relevant facts, the Army's goal is to respond within 24 hours.
The Superintendent prepared a recommendation for approval or denial and submitted it with the package to the responsible Assistant Secretary. The Assistant Secretary independently reviewed the package and made a recommendation after obtaining a legal review from the Office of the Army General Counsel and other coordination. The request then arrived in my office for decision. The regularity of this process led to only nine occasions, in which I, exercising my independent judgment as the decision-maker, authorized a burial for which the Superintendent had recommended disapproval up through the system.
I approved a total of 59 requests for burial while serving as the Secretary of the Army from November 1993 through December 1997. Forty-three of these requests fell into the largest group of exceptions -- family members interred in the same grave as eligible, immediate family members. This group includes primarily unmarried, adult children with no dependents interred with their parents and remarried widows interred with their first husbands. The vast majority of requests of this type are approved out of compassion for the deceased and the requesting family members. Consequently, I only denied two family member requests.
One was a married son with two dependent children requesting burial with his parents. The request was denied because the wife and children would have become automatically eligible pursuant to the regulation and insufficient space remained to accommodate all of the family members in the grave. The second was a request for a nephew to be buried with his uncle. Not only are family member burials usually limited to immediate family, but the uncle had no surviving family members to approve of the burial and the nephew had already been cremated and was eligible for inurnment in the cemetery's Columbarium in his own right.
The second group of exceptions consists of burials that will displace eligible veterans. After careful consideration of each individual circumstance, I disapproved 28 such requests. The vast majority in this group that are approved are veterans who were not automatically eligible for burial, but whose compelling circumstances merited burial at Arlington. I authorized burial of thirteen such veterans. The remaining fraction of approvals are for public servants whose significant national contributions warranted burial at Arlington. I authorized three such burials, namely: a Department of State official killed on a diplomatic mission to Bosnia; a war correspondent who played a critical role in resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis and later served as a U.N. Ambassador; and an ambassador who died at his post.
Unlike those granted exceptions to be buried in the same grave, the facts that constitute compelling circumstances or significant national contributions are much more varied. In authorizing burials in this latter group of exceptions, I relied on four categories presented to me when I originally took office: ambassadors, assassinated embassy or foreign service personnel, persons who have made a unique national contribution; and humanitarian reasons.
This record, and the records of my predecessors, indicate that the responsibility for Arlington is taken seriously. The consistent application over 30 years of a standard based either on immediate family relation to, and burial with, a person eligible for burial or on an evaluation of the person's contributions to the Nation validates the process. The Secretary of the Army is appropriately situated to strike the necessary balance between compassionate discretion and responsibility for safeguarding Arlington, and accountability to service members, veterans, the public, and Congress.
Since the conclusion of the Civil War, the Nation has maintained Arlington National Cemetery as a final resting place for heroes. Every Secretary of War and Secretary of the Army has assumed responsibility for stewardship of this hallowed place with great seriousness. These hearings underscore this Subcommittee's appropriate concern that rules concerning eligibility and process for burial at Arlington continue to reflect the sacred nature of that place. I am pleased to join with you in that spirit today. Our Nation, service members, and veterans deserve no less.