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Arlington to expand for Iraq war losses

Cemetery also making space for WWII veterans

The honor guard held a flag at the funeral of Specialist Ari Brown-Weeks, killed in Iraq, at Arlington National Cemetery. The honor guard held a flag at the funeral of Specialist Ari Brown-Weeks, killed in Iraq, at Arlington National Cemetery. (Bill O'Leary/Washington Post)

WASHINGTON - At Arlington National Cemetery one recent Friday, there were four funerals scheduled at 9 a.m., three at 10 a.m., six at 11 a.m., and 15 between 1 and 3 p.m.

The nation's shrine to its military dead had 6,785 funerals in the just-concluded fiscal year, an all-time record. Now, as the dying of the World War II generation peaks, the cemetery is so busy that despite careful choreography, people attending one funeral can hear the bugle and rifle salutes echoing from another.

As a result, the cemetery is about to begin a $35 million expansion that would push the ordered ranks of tombstones beyond its borders for the first time since the 1960s.

The Millennium Project has been in the works for years as the cemetery has grown busier. Dead from the Iraq war have been laid to rest with the veterans of wars past, and visitors have flocked to the see the Tomb of the Unknowns and the graves of such figures as President Kennedy.

Timing at Arlington has become critical. Some of the funerals can be fairly elaborate, with a band, a procession, and a horse-drawn caisson, and can take up to 2 1/2 hours. Others might last 35 or 40 minutes. All must be meticulously scheduled to minimize distractions and avoid traffic tie-ups on the cemetery roadways.

The Millennium expansion has involved, among other things, the sensitive transfer of 12 acres within the cemetery from the National Park Service's historic Arlington House, the onetime home of Robert E. Lee. The Park Service has lamented the likely loss of woodland and the cemetery's encroachment on the majestic hilltop home, which dates to 1802.

The project, which focuses on the northwest edge of the cemetery in Arlington, Va., includes expansion into about 10 acres taken from the Army's adjacent Fort Myer and four acres of cemetery maintenance property inside the boundaries, officials said.

The extra space would provide room for 14,000 ground burials and 22,000 inurnments in a large columbarium complex, officials said. The project comes on the heels of extensive work underway to utilize 40 acres of unused space in the cemetery, creating room for 26,000 more graves and 5,000 inurnments. And there are plans for further outside expansion in the years ahead.

The cemetery, established in 1864, covers more than 600 acres, and more than 300,000 people are buried there.

The expansions are, in part, a response to the deaths of members of the country's World War II generation, about 16 million of whom served in the armed forces.

The Department of Veterans Affairs says more than 3 million World War II veterans are alive. About 1,000 die each day.

The department's National Cemetery Administration says the number of veteran deaths is peaking, at about 680,000 annually, and is expected to fall gradually to 671,000 in 2010, 622,000 in 2015, and 562,000 in 2020.

"You can see even though it does start to decline, it stays high," administration spokesman Mike Nacincik said.

He said the agency, which does not run Arlington, is in the midst of its largest expansion since the Civil War - adding 12 national cemeteries around the country to the 125 it operates.

Of those 125, Nacincik said, half are full or open chiefly for cremation funerals.

Officials at Fort Riley, Kan., declared the eight-acre cemetery at the historic Army base full after the Sept. 18 burial of a World War II veteran. More than 5,000 people are buried there.

At Arlington, which is run by the Army, the steady death toll from Iraq and Afghanistan has added to the numbers, although the cemetery gets about 11 percent of those cases. More than 400 members of the armed forces who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan have been buried there.

Arlington cemetery officials said they are aware of the trends.

"We want Arlington National Cemetery to be available for veterans into the future," said cemetery superintendent John C. Metzler Jr. "We don't want to close it down. Arlington is our nation's national cemetery."

"Part of my job is to look out 100 years," Metzler said. He wanted to be sure that "we're never out of grave space, we're never down to that critical five-year window where we have nothing on the books" that would keep the cemetery open.

The initial work, to be contracted through the Army Corps of Engineers, would control drainage into the new sections, Metzler said.

Katherine Basye Welton, cemetery project manager for the Corps of Engineers, said the first contracts were to be awarded by this month, but because of inadequate bids, the work might not be awarded until the end of the year.

The project is expected to unfold over the next 10 years with funding hoped for from Congress.

Metzler said the projects should keep the cemetery open through about 2060.

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