On June 10, Senator Tammy Duckworth (D. Illinois)—a retired U.S. Army officer, Iraq War veteran, and Purple Heart recipient—introduced legislation that would bar non-veteran presidents and vice presidents from being interred at Arlington National Cemetery.
The 156-year-old grave site, originally established in the wake of the Civil War, has evolved into one of the nation’s most hallowed grounds, conducting roughly 7,000 burials a year.
With the famed cemetery running out of space, Karen Durham-Aguilera, Executive Director Office of Army Cemeteries, said in 2017 that by the year 2041 “Arlington National Cemetery will not be a burial option for those service members who served in the Gulf War and any conflict afterwards” without changes to the current footprint or eligibility policies.
Officials are currently seeking to limit the number of individuals eligible for burial, with a 2018 report from the Advisory Committee on Arlington National Cemetery recommending “that eligibility for interment at ANC be changed to more specifically identify with and honor the level of service and sacrifice.” Specifically, those:
- Killed in action
- Recipients of the Medal of Honor
- Recipients of the Purple Heart, Silver Star, and above
- Died on active duty
- Former POWs
Despite current and ongoing restrictions to burial rights at Arlington, presidents and vice presidents remain eligible regardless of military service.
“This legislation makes sure that no burial space should be reserved for individuals who are not servicemembers or Veterans—even if he or she served as President or Vice President of the United States,” Duckworth said in a statement.
Currently no vice presidents are buried at Arlington, while only two presidents are interred there: William Howard Taft (d. 1930) and John F. Kennedy (d. 1963).
Serving as Secretary of War under President Theodore Roosevelt, Taft, after his presidency, enlisted in the Connecticut Home Guard to demonstrate his public support for World War I. From 1921 until his death, he also served as the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Kennedy famously served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy during WWII, and commanded Patrol Torpedo boat 109 when a Japanese destroyer slammed into it on the evening of August 2, 1943. For his actions that night, Kennedy was awarded a Navy and Marine Corps Medal and a Purple Heart.
Presently, two of the four living presidents are veterans: “former President Jimmy Carter, who graduated from the Naval Academy and served in the U.S. Navy, and former President George W. Bush, a member of the Texas Air National Guard who spent two years on active duty during training,” wrote Military.com.
Duckworth, a longtime critic of President Donald Trump’s draft exemption from the Vietnam War, wrote that the Army’s 2019 proposal “included one glaring recommendation that would expand eligibility beyond even today’s standards: allowing Presidents and Vice Presidents who never served in the U.S. Armed Forces to be buried there—taking the place of actual Veterans who served in uniform and their family members.”
As space concerns mount and the debate on burial restrictions continues, Duckworth remains committed to the prioritization of veteran internment stating pointedly, “Arlington National Cemetery is sacred ground for those who gave their lives to defend and protect this nation.”