War Dead Ahead

Medic first published this article in the June 2, 2007 of CounterPunch

Go, tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

Epitaph on the Cenotaph of Thermopylae, Simonides of Ceos

Cambodia 1970
The first dead American I ever saw was black. Third platoon had perimeter guard. Second platoon walked into an ambush. We followed a truck to the tree line. It was cold and muddy­, his body was wrapped in a poncho, ­we helped pass it hand over hand, as if the corpse were a fire brigade bucket. The dead weight was hard to carry. ­Steam rose from his jungle fatigues. It was raining; his eyes were not blinking­. It was the saddest sight I’d ever seen.

In Vietnam, American KIAs were brought to Graves Registration (also known as GR Point), where intact or ruined bodies, and/or collections of body parts, often of one man, sometimes mixed up, were prepped for shipment home. Gruesome work­, the task drove some men crazy. It’s said that heroin was secretly stashed inside US-bound military caskets. (1)

Fast forward to present American battles. The hard work of body retrieval and preparation is today called Mortuary Affairs. Marine Jason Cotnoir, an undertaker by trade, describes the archeology of harvesting the dead: “There were the remains of four or five guys spread out over six hundred square yards. We had to walk a grid. It was just like a police scene…there are thousands of these flags in the field, and it’s just surreal knowing that all those flags represent something. Everything got treated as reverently as if it were a whole body. Even if it was just a leg or an arm or, God forbid, a hand or, you know, a torso…everything got treated the same.” (2) Back at the base, teams made horror whole so that kin might grieve in peace.

In 2005 John Holley learned that his son, Matthew Holley, a medic with the 101st Airborne, had been killed in Iraq by an IED, and would return home as freight. In fact, since 2002, many KIA caskets were placed in the cargo bays of commercial jets. Once landed, forklift operators dispatched the gleaming metal coffins to warehouses and grieving next of kin. As if the dead were luggage, and the families did not deserve respect. (3)

Outraged, John Holley complained to his congressman, then House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif and to Sentator. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. The outcome: a January 2006 law which assures that US military personnel killed in Iraq or Afghanistan are returned on military or military-contracted aircraft. An escort and a white gloved arrival honor guard are mandatory. (Families may request commercial airlines, which may also be used when remains are sent outside the United States).

The American Way
In 1963, Jessica Mitford’s book, The American Way of Death, shed light on the art of gratuitous embalming (in most cases not necessary or lawfully required); double charging for services; charging inflated prices for grooming, dressing; patching up or otherwise prepping the dead. She detailed the habitual false or misleading statements made by funeral directors, who pressured the grief stricken to buy outrageously marked-up coffins, and who pressed for burial over less expensive cremation.

Mitford also illuminated the interconnected worlds of cemetery owners, casket, vault, and monument makers, and the flourishing trade of bereavement florists. She profiled the titan funeral industry as fearful of politicians, church officials, anyone seeking a dignified, low priced funeral.

In many states it’s lawful–it was common place a hundred years ago–to privately transport the deceased in a home made casket, and to bury them. Mitford’s book became a best seller. Congressional hearings were held. Regulations were passed. The Federal Trade Commission’s “Funeral Law,” written in plain English, is an indispensable guide to caring for the dead.

History of Arlington National Cemetery
In 1862, with Civil War losses near Washington, D.C. mounting, and many grieving families too poor to retrieve their kin, the Arlington House estate, owned by Robert E. Lee and his wife Mary, was seized by the government for failure to pay property taxes. In 1864, Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs took the land, and put it to use as a military cemetery, hoping to render the estate unsuitable if Lee chose to return. Lee never came back, but years later a Lee heir sued, won, and sold the land to the government. At the wars conclusion, sixteen thousand soldiers were buried at Arlington, where headstones were often made of wood, and names might be misspelled, or unknown.

Arlington Today
The Department of Veterans’ Affairs administers one-hundred-twenty-five national cemeteries in thirty-nine states and Puerto Rico, and thirty-three soldier’s lots and monument sites.  Many veterans choose to be buried at Arlington. With over one hundred burials per week, and approximately 290,000 burials to date, Arlington is run by the Department of the Army. Due to demand, there may be delays, up to three weeks, in scheduling a burial. About seventy-thousand burial sites remain on the six-hundred-twelve-acre cemetery. The Army surmises they will be gone by 2025.

The eligibility criteria for burial at Arlington is several pages long. Among those veterans entitled to interment at Arlington:
-active duty soldiers (except those on active duty for training only)
-career veterans retired from active service
-retired reservists at age sixty drawing retired pay and who served on active duty (other than for training)
-veterans honorably discharged before October 1, 1949 for medical reasons and rated at least 30% disabled at discharge
-veterans awarded one of the following: Medal of Honor, DSC, DSM, Navy Cross or Air Force Cross, Silver Star, Purple Heart
-ex POWs who, as prisoners, served honorably, received an honorable discharge, and who died after November 30, 1993.

The deceased veterans estate, next-of-kin or a personal representative must contact Arlington (877-907-8585) and provide the appropriate documents to verify the veteran’s eligibility for interment (ground burial) or for inurnment (burial or storage of ashes) to Arlington staff, who may help determine eligibility. Verification by Arlington may take up to three business days. A copy of the veterans discharge document, known as a DD 214, in which service is described as “honorable” or “under honorable conditions” is acceptable. Under honorable” should not be confused with “less than honorable.” According to Army Regulation 635-200 (effective January 19, 2004) 3-7 (b) a General Discharge is equal to an Honorable Discharge. Once verified, the cemetery staff will schedule the interment.

Making Arrangements
(excerpted from the official Arlington Cemetery website)

Upon the death of the veteran or veteran’s spouse, the Primary Next of Kin (PNOK) or Person Authorized to Direct Disposition (PADD) should contact a local funeral home to arrange for any desired services in the hometown. The  PNOK, PADD or the funeral director should telephone the Arlington National Cemetery’s customer service center at 1-877-907-8585 to arrange for the interment/inurnment service.

The process to schedule a burial at Arlington National Cemetery can be complex and we handle each family’s request individually with the utmost care and professionalism. Each request is unique and the length of time it takes for scheduling is typically several weeks to several months and depends on many factors, including the family’s ability to provide all documents to verify eligibility, any special requests, requests for full military honors (which can take take longer to schedule than standard military honors because of additional military resources such as escorts and the caisson), requests for one of the chapels located on Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, etc.

When the family or funeral home makes the first call to the customer service center, they are given a case number for tracking purposes and are asked to fax or e-mail all required documents for review. The cemetery staff will need to establish and confirm the service member is eligible for burial at Arlington. We recommend that you have all of the required documentation together before you call the cemetery to schedule the service. (Note: Arlington no longer lists an email address. Contact staff for the proper way to submit requested documents).

The required documents are the DD 214 (or service equivalent) to establish eligibility for the eligible service member, death certificate, and cremation certificate, if applicable. It is the family’s responsibility to provide the service member’s eligibility documents. A service will not be scheduled until all required documents are received.

Families will be required to validate that an urn contains one hundred percent of the decedent’s remains received from the crematorium or funeral home before Arlington National Cemetery conducts the burial service.

Down and Dirty Work
In 1967, due to projected overcrowding, Arlington burials were limited to combat wounded or KIA, highly decorated veterans, retirees with twenty years of service, high government officials with military service, and immediate family members of eligible vets. Soon the use of waivers began, leading to political favoritism. The 1996 case of a former US Ambassador to Switzerland, made national head lines.

A major Clinton campaign funder, Larry Lawrence had lied about his military service, claiming to have been wounded in combat as a Merchant Marine in W.W.II. His widow, Sheila Davis (alleged by Arianna Huffington to have dallied with Clinton), was compelled to remove the body, and bury it elsewhere, at her expense. Unfortunately, waivers continued.

In 2007 Arlington’s official web site stated: “The purpose for an Exception to the Interment/Inurnment Policy is to permit those who are not otherwise eligible under current policies to ask for special consideration. Please note, exceptions are only approved for those requestors whose facts merit extraordinary circumstances and whose approval will not ordinarily displace an otherwise eligible Veteran.” The rhetoric sounds right but leaves room for abuse. Waivers should be discontinued. The rhetoric sounded right but left room for abuse. By 2019 a thoroughly re-written Exception policy lists detailed evaluation criteria and specific required documents in order for a waiver to be considered.

Military Honors, Preferences, Shortages
Standard military honors are accorded by rank. Arlington will contact the deceased’s branch of service and arrange for enlisted honors when requested. These include: pall bearers, a firing party, a bugler.

Likely an old British custom, after slain soldiers from both sides were dragged from battlefields at cease fires, three volleys were fired to signal that fighting could resume.
Taps was composed in 1862 by the Union Army’s Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield. In the absence of a bugler, the melody was tapped out on a drum.

Today, due to limited valveless bugles, Taps at Arlington is often played on a valved trumpet or coronet. A 1999 law requiring Taps if requested at VA cemeteries resulted in a shortage of buglers. Veterans service organizations issued Taps CDs. In national cemeteries across the country undignified boom boxes sounded the mournful call. With Pentagon help, S&D Consulting designed a small battery operated device. Tucked into the bell of a facsimile bugle, activated by the press of a switch, the electronic automated horn has been well received.

At Arlington, a military chaplain will conduct the service unless the family prefers its own minister, who must be assigned by the family or the funeral home. Certain E-9s may be entitled to other honors given their branch of service.

In addition to the above, Commissioned and Warrant Officers are granted a caisson, band, and escort troops if requested. For Army and Marine O-6 and up, a riderless horse, a symbol of the fallen warrior, is provided. For Flag Officers, the Minute Guns and Gun Salute are supplied. In cold weather, the full band may not play but honors are performed.

Most veterans are entitled to a burial flag. Requests must be made at the time of need. Flags are furnished by VA regional offices and most US post offices after VA Form 21-2008 is filed and submitted with a copy of the veteran’s DD 214 to either location. Grave liners, external cement containers in which caskets are placed to reduce post burial grave sinkage, are provided free of charge.

A white marble tombstone or white niche cover, with appropriate inscription and faith symbol, will be furnished free. Arlington staff will place the order. There are sixty-five religious symbols allowed on gravestones, among them: Sufism Reoriented, The Church of World Messianity, Eckankar, Humanist Emblem of Spirit, and Soka Gakkai International. It takes ninety to one-hundred-twenty days after the service for the tombstone or niche marker to be installed. Next-of-kin can check the status of the order by calling 1-877-907-8586 during Arlington’s business hours.

A Standard Burial Service
The standard military funeral at Arlington is a solemn, dignified affair. Family and friends gather at grave side. Dress uniformed pall bearers carry the flag draped casket to the grave, lower the casket into place, and grip the flag taut over the coffin. During this time a chaplain speaks. Next, the officer in charge commands three quick volleys fired by seven riflemen. There is the dolorous playing of taps. There is the crisp hypnotic folding of the flag. Stepping forth, the chaplain hands the flag to the next-of-kin.

“This flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation as a token of our appreciation for the honorable and faithful service rendered by your loved one,” he will say.

And some will swell with pride, and some will clench their jaws, and some will weep. Throughout, at appointed times, civilians place hands to hearts, soldiers smartly salute. Finally, an Arlington staff member will offer condolences to the bereaved, and announce that the service is done. Attendees are bid to return to their cars. On average thirty minutes have passed.

Talkin’ Head Stone Generation
In 2007 this writer called Arlington National Cemetery and asked, “Has the government ever engraved Operation Iraqi Freedom on the tombstone without family consent?” The expected reply was swift and courteous. “Oh no, sir. We’ve never done that. That has never happened. The family has to ask before we do anything.” Some say that’s not always the case. Some feel slogans on gravestones are improper.

Two years ago, in an AP story, Robert McCaffrey stated, “I was a little taken aback. They certainly didn’t ask my wife; they didn’t ask me.” Or his son’s widow. Patrick McCaffrey was killed in Iraq in June 2004 by members of the Iraqi Security Forces. The undesired epitaph was neatly etched on his burial stone.

Prior to the invasion of Iraq, only the name, rank, service branch, dates of birth and death, and nominally, the specific war and country were listed on the head stones of our war dead. Until 1997 families paid the stone makers for added mementos. Today it’s free. In fact, four years ago, the VA told all national cemetery and funeral home directors to inform Iraq or Afghanistan KIA next-of-kin that the tombstone epitaphs “Enduring Freedom” or “Iraqi Freedom” were available at no cost. Those interred at Arlington were eligible as well.

Accordingly, at Arlington and VA national cemeteries, a display stone is exhibited to the bereaved. Next-of-kin then decide what military campaign is or is not etched on the upright slab. The majority of post 9/1l Arlington tombstones contain one or the other campaign phrase.

Former Senator, Vietnam veteran and past VA chief Max Cleland, while respectful of KIA family, has said, “It’s a little bit of glorified advertising.” Jeff Martell, who owns the Vermont company which sculpts the granite markers, stated, “It just seems a little brazen that that’s put on stones.” For its part the VA feels it’s not a marketing stunt. “The headstone is not a PR purpose. It is to let the country know and the people that visit the cemetery know who served this country and made the country free for us,” Department of Veterans’ Affairs spokesmen Steve Munro has said.* Other VA officials have stated that neither the White House nor the Pentagon were behind the new choices, and that families can opt out. The director of the VA’s memorial programs service, Dave Schettler, has stated, “It’s just the right thing to do and it always has been, but it hasn’t always been followed.”

Robert McCaffrey would agree. “Patrick did not want that to be there, that is a definite fact,” he said.

MIA=Missing in Arlington
Many tree memorials dot the hallowed hills and dales of Arlington. Among the honored, officially listed by name, section and species, are the My Lai massacre tainted Americal Division (­Section 34, Red Maple), the fervently slaughtered Indigenous People (Native Americans, ­Section 8, Eastern Cottonwood), and the gutsy Professional Lawn Care Association of America (­Section 13, Rose Garden).

Among the least well known are twenty-one Special Forces cadre, KIA in El Salvador, their names not etched on a small grim stone near a white oak, located in Section 12, a forlorn parcel of ground easily overlooked. The back story is not pleasant.

In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan secretly authorized hundreds if not thousands of Green Berets to advise and fight alongside the brutal Salvadoran Army in that country’s horrific civil war. According to Knight-Ridder, so secret was the American presence in Central American operations that ‘body washing,’ which originated during Vietnam, was employed.

“If a guy is killed on a mission,” said an ex-covert operative, “And if it was sensitive politically, we’d ship the body back home and have a jeep roll over on him at Fort Huachuca,” an obscure Army intel base. “Or we’d arrange a chopper crash, or wait until one happened and insert a body or two into the wreckage later. It’s not that difficult.”

Indeed, the Washington Post quoted retired General Joseph Stringham, a Special Forces commander in El Salvador in 1983-84, as saying, “It had been determined this (El Salvador) was not a combat zone, and they were going to hold the line on that. I’ve puzzled over why.”

Thanks to Regan’s anti-communist rhetoric and co-ordinated attacks on investigative journalists, to a tight lipped Pentagon, and to Washington’s inbred careerism, the El Salvador cover up has endured. (4)

However in 1996 President Clinton signed into law the Defense Authorization Act, which forced the Pentagon to award Expeditionary Medals to US military who served in El Salvador.

A “60 Minutes” broadcast also shed light on the once secret affair. A military service was finally held in 1996. The anonymous honorific reads, “El Salvador 1981-1992. Blessed are the peacemakers. In sacred memory of those who died to bring hope and peace.” In El Salvador, the jailed, tortured, and eighty-thousand civilian dead might disagree.

Dulce Et Decorum Est
It is good and fitting to give Iraq vet Mike Bonaldo,  the last word on the soldiers way of death: “There was a pink cloud that came up after the explosion from all the blood that was in the building. You know, because there were at least two dead insurgents and the blood of marines…so there was a lot of blood in the building.” (2)

Memento Mori
Complete, up to date details regarding eligibility, service arrangements, and post funeral benefits are at the official Arlington web site, from which material for this article was drawn.


UPDATE: Arlington Nearly Full (New York Times 2018)

UPDATE Proposed Eligibility Changes (Washington Post 2019)

UPDATE  Army to Start Rotating Arlington Horses to Bigger Pasture Following Deaths
Military.com 2022)

additional sources

1)  Alfred W McCoy, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia

2) Trish Wood, What Was Asked of Us:  An Oral History of the Iraq War by the Men Who Fought It

3) John Holley, Stacy Holley, Medals, Flags and Memories, Navigator Books, 2011

4) Ray Bonner, Massacre of Hundreds Reported in Salvador Village, New York Times, 1982

See Michael Robert Patterson’s extensive unofficial Arlington website.

*In 2014 Steve Munro retired from the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) after thirty five-years of government service. One month later the Inspector General of the Division of Veterans Affairs filed a report against him. Munro was found to have created jobs for a Cemetery employee which included an annual $10,000 pay raise. Munro also awarded NCA contracts and letters of recommendation to a female contractor with whom he had a personal relationship. Ultimately the IG took no punitive action against him.  See the Inspector Generals report.

Top image: detail from the 2500 year old Euphronios Krater (a two handled jar) depicting the Death of Sarpedon (a Trojan ally, leader of the Lycians and son of Zeus, killed by the spear of Patroklos.