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The sacred trust at Arlington Cemetery

In Section 34 of Arlington National Cemetery, just down the hill and within sight of Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing’s gravesite, the last surviving U.S. veteran of World War I has been laid to rest.Frank Buckles was our only living link to the 4.7 million Americans who served in “the war to end all wars,” and to the generation that founded The American Legion. Until the end, he humbly represented them, asking only that his comrades be honored with a national memorial. Buckles understood the importance of remembrance. Now he belongs to Arlington, where every day is Memorial Day. Here, the story of our republic is heard from row upon row of white marble headstones, each one a monument. On May 13, 1864, Pvt. William Christman of the Union Army was the first person buried at the former estate, and since then Arlington’s soil has become ever more sacred. Its 624 acres are home to veterans and military casualties of every war and conflict involving the United States, from the American Revolution to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Burial among such noble company is one of the nation’s highest honors.That said, revelations last year of hundreds of unmarked or mismarked graves, dumped burial urns and millions of dollars wasted at Arlington were nothing less than stomach-turning. Behind the pristine grounds and ordered ceremonies, dysfunctional management plagued our most revered military cemetery, leaving its Army overseers to concede that they violated the public’s trust.As the scandal made headlines in 2010, veterans organizations – including The American Legion, with a resolution passed at the 92nd National Convention in Milwaukee – called for operations at Arlington to be transferred to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which oversees 131 cemeteries with 3 million graves. Secretary of the Army John McHugh agreed that there is “no excuse” for negligence but told the House Armed Services Committee that it remains the military’s responsibility, particularly in wartime, to carry heroes to their final resting place.Nearly a year later, we are cautiously optimistic about the Army’s efforts to right the wrongs found at Arlington. Top officials have been fired, new staff hired and trained, and accountability enforced. Speaking candidly to Legionnaires at the Washington Conference in March, Kathryn Condon, executive director of the Army National Cemeteries Program, said that most issues have been resolved, but others were uncovered. It appears that the Army won’t settle for patching a hole at Arlington, and is committed to an extensive overhaul of operations, from new burial equipment and digital mapping to a consolidated call center for families wishing to schedule services.With 300,000 graves, and an average of 25 funerals a day, Arlington is no ordinary cemetery. To every American sent into harm’s way on our behalf, this hallowed ground stands as a pledge: whether you die doing your duty or return home to us, your service and sacrifice will forever be remembered in this place. Those who are entrusted with their remains have no room for error.

 

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