More space for fallen heroes at Arlington

The Millennium Project at Arlington National Cemetery will open 36,000 more burial sites. The expansion is needed, in part, because of the deaths of World War II veterans.


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ARLINGTON, Va. -- Only 21 at the time of his death, Pvt. William Christman, of the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry, spent most of his two-month military career in the hospital, fighting an abdominal illness and missing the climactic battles of the Civil War.

But he still has a revered place in U.S. history. On May 13, 1864, he was the first soldier to be buried on the family property of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, which later became Arlington National Cemetery.

Today, nearly a century and a half later, more than 300,000 people rest in the nation's most hallowed burial ground, but largely because of the deaths of World War II veterans, that number is expanding at a brisk pace. The cemetery holds as many as 30 funerals a day, and, if nothing is done, it will fill up by 2030.

John C. Metzler Jr., the cemetery's superintendent, is putting together a 100-year plan to prevent that from happening.

The first stage, known as the Millennium Project, is set to begin soon. At a cost of $40 million to $45 million (about $15 million more than Arlington's annual budget) it will add 30.5 acres to the 624-acre cemetery, opening up 36,000 additional burial sites.

"The goal is to make sure that there's always space available for our fallen heroes," Mr. Metzler said in a recent interview in his office.

Few people have a stronger connection to Arlington than Mr. Metzler. His father, a World War II veteran, is buried in section 7A, near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The elder Mr. Metzler also served as Arlington's superintendent, from 1951 to 1972, overseeing the burial of President John F. Kennedy.

Mr. Metzler spent his formative years there, living in a house near the Lee mansion on the northeastern edge of the cemetery.

"It was all I knew," he said. "So, for me, it was normal."

Mr. Metzler, who served as a helicopter crew chief in Vietnam, became Arlington's superintendent in 1991. He lives in the house where he grew up.

In the Civil War days of Pvt. Christman, Army Quartermaster Gen. Montgomery Meigs ordered burials on 200 acres around the Lee mansion (including Mrs. Lee's rose garden), in part to punish the Confederate general for his "treasonous" behavior, according to Philip Bigler's "In Honored Glory," a history of the cemetery. By the end of 1864, 7,000 Union soldiers were laid to rest there, most without ceremony or religious services.

At the turn of the century, the cemetery began accepting spouses of soldiers, increasing its popularity. In 1906, Congress approved the building of a Confederate memorial.

It saw a significant boom in the 1920s, after the introduction of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, now guarded 24 hours a day by soldiers from the 3rd Infantry.

JFK's death boosts awareness

Arlington achieved a prominent spot in the national conscience in 1963, the year of Mr. Kennedy's assassination, according to Mr. Metzler. "For the first time our country watched a funeral at the same time. Everybody saw John Jr. salute his dad's casket."

In the year following the president's death, the number of visitors jumped from 2 million to 7 million. Between 1962 and 1966, the number of annual burials increased from about 4,000 to 7,000.

To handle the load, military officials tightened the eligibility requirements at the cemetery, limiting, for instance, the number of family members who could be buried there.

In addition to active duty armed service members, those who retire with at least 20 years of active duty are eligible for interment. Retired members of the reserves must reach the age of 60. Any recipients of the Purple Heart, Silver Star or Medal of Honor can secure a spot at Arlington.

Spouses and dependent children are also eligible.

There is no charge for burial.

National attention to the cemetery is again high because of funerals of members of the armed forces killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. About 11 percent of them come to Arlington.

But the main forces behind the expansion are the approximately 970 World War II veterans who die each day, according to the Veterans Administration.

Arlington's daily funerals are meticulously planned. It is the only cemetery in the United States that routinely uses horse-drawn caissons to carry flag-draped caskets to their resting places, according to Mr. Bigler's history.

The caisson platoon draws soldiers from the 3rd Infantry who can work with horses. Preparation for a "full honor" funeral begins before dawn, with up to five hours of grooming, polishing and dressing of the animals. For officers of the rank of colonel or higher, a riderless horse follows the caisson to the gravesite.

A rifle squad fires several shots as the casket is lowered into the grave. A bugler plays the haunting "Taps." An honor guard folds the casket's flag and presents it to the family.

The VA, which maintains more than 2.8 million grave sites in 125 cemeteries, has seen a significant growth in burials nationwide. It plans to build six more cemeteries in the next several years.

One of its newest is the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies in Cecil, Washington County, which opened in August 2005. It is already home to the remains of more than 1,300 people, averaging about three funerals per day. When all of its 292 acres are developed, the cemetery will be capable of holding up to 100,000 burial sites.

The Army, which runs Arlington, has directed Mr. Metzler to undertake the expansion there. The Millennium Project involves transferring land from a picnic area at adjacent Fort Meyer, the conversion of an old warehouse space and the development of several acres of woodlands that are part of the National Park Service's Arlington House property, the former home of Gen. Lee.

Conflict with park

It's a disappointment for Kendell Thompson, the property's site manager. The park service's goal is to maintain Arlington House and its surroundings in perpetuity.

"Once that land has been developed for any purpose, we can't undo that," he said. "The national cemetery has a very important national mandate. It's unfortunate that our national mandates are somewhat in conflict."

In three years, the cemetery will acquire a 36-acre site called the Navy Annex. Officials are also planning to move Arlington's underground utility lines, freeing up another area for graves.

All the growth plans will keep the cemetery open until at least 2060, Mr. Metzler said. But his goal is still to determine how to reach the 22nd century.

Arlington can draw on more federal government land, but it also likely will come into contact with some private property. There is no estimate for how much the expansions will cost.

"As we get deeper into the master plan it will take a lot more understanding from everyone," Mr. Metzler said. "But I think we'll get past that. This is a treasure within our country and one that needs to be preserved."

His words were echoed by Rickie Triplett, a former Marine who was visiting the eternal flame at President Kennedy's gravesite last month with his wife and son.

It was their second trip to Arlington. As a light rain fell, they looked out at the rows of marble headstones covering the hillside.

"I was just telling my son -- if we wanted to be buried here, we could," said Mr. Triplett, 43, of Wilkesboro, N.C. "It's not just a cemetery. It's part of our heritage."




Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at jsherman@post-gazette.com or 202-488-3479. First Published November 4, 2007 4:00 AM


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