Arlington National Cemetery, the final resting place for more than 420,000 veterans and their families, is facing a space shortage. At its current rate of approximately 7,000 interments annually, it is estimated that the cemetery will be full in about 25 years.
To deal with this problem, the Department of the Army, which administers the cemetery, is considering significant restrictions on who can be buried there. Today, those killed in action, recipients of the Purple Heart and the top three awards for valor, and those who are formally retired from the military are all eligible for burial. One proposal being considered by Army leaders is to restrict Arlington to those killed in action and recipients of the Medal of Honor. This would be a mistake.
When I served in the Marines, we used to say something to one another before particularly dangerous missions. I remember having this exchange with my friend Aaron Torian on a remote airfield as we loaded into separate helicopters for a raid deep into a valley held by the Taliban. It was about 1 a.m. We’d been told to expect resistance on the landing zone. The situation was tense. It was tough to find anything to say, so we shook hands and simply told each other, “See you after.”
I’ve said the same to other friends, in places like Falluja and along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Always, those words were a promise. We would either see each other when the mission was over, or, if we didn’t come home, we’d meet up in that other after.
Aaron and I both survived that raid. Six years later he was killed by a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan. He’s buried in Section 60.
There is arguably no more prestigious place in the United States to be buried than in Arlington, alongside former presidents, generals, admirals and Supreme Court justices. But is that what makes it special? I would argue that it is not. The reason Arlington is special goes back to that promise, “See you after.”
After the wars, in my life as a civilian, the closest I ever come to making a promise like the one I made to Aaron is when I tuck my children into bed. Before I turn off the lights, I say, “See you in the morning,” which for any parent is also a sort of prayer, and it feels a little bit the way it felt with Aaron. Perhaps that’s because the tie that binds is familial. Fighting alongside someone will also make him family.
This is what makes Arlington special; it is what makes it part of that larger promise, too. If you fight alongside one another, you will be afforded the opportunity to be laid to rest alongside one another, alongside your family, and, depending on what you believe, be reunited in the thereafter.
The Army’s proposal, under which only those killed in action and a few Medal of Honor recipients could be laid to rest alongside one another, would break that tie between those who survive and those who do not. Breaking that tie would, counterintuitively, make the ground less hallow. It would take away the promised reunification that exists within its soil.
An alternative proposed by groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars is to expand our national cemetery to other locations in the Greater Washington area, to consecrate new ground. Those opposed to this idea point out that this ground could never be as hallowed as Arlington, that being buried in a new location would in some way be less than being buried in the current cemetery. But that naturally raises the question: What makes the ground hallowed?
The answer can be found in a speech written to dedicate another cemetery, the one in Gettysburg, Pa. Of that then-new cemetery, President Abraham Lincoln said: “ We cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it.”
That’s why Arlington is where I’d like my final resting place to be — not because it’s near any great men or women, but because it’s near Aaron Torian and Garrett Lawton and Doug Zembiec and Dan Malcom and all of the others.
Even if the Army dug up the graves and put them on another piece of land on the side of the freeway, that’s still where I’d want to be buried.
Like most people, I want to be near my family, my brothers to whom I said, “See you after.”
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