'On Behalf of a Grateful Country...'

At Arlington National Cemetery, those words echo every day, as soldiers from wars past, and present, are laid to rest in a graveyard steeped in history.

September 14, 2003|By JOHN WOESTENDIEK | JOHN WOESTENDIEK,SUN STAFF

A cold wind whipped through Section 60.

It stripped cherry blossoms from their branches, sending old buds and new to the muddy ground like spent confetti.

It brought limp flags to life, masking the not-quite-silent background hum of funerals -- stifled sobs, cleared throats and hushed voices -- with the crisp and gently reassuring sound of fabric slapping itself.

And it made Joe Rippetoe's pesky right shoulder so stiff that, when it was time to salute -- to face the general, accept the flag and hear the words, "On behalf of a grateful country ..." -- the former Army Ranger, disabled in Vietnam, had to use his left hand to guide his right into position.

Rippetoe, an old soldier, was burying a young one. His son, Capt. Russell B. Rippetoe, 27, an Army Ranger killed in an April 3 car-bomb explosion, was the first casualty in the war with Iraq to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Since that dreary April 10, thirty more have come, from Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan, to the 624 rolling green acres along the Potomac regarded as the most hallowed ground in America.

Thirty-one times, from April to August a lone bugler played taps, a seven-soldier squad fired a three-shot salute, and the American flag was folded into a tight triangle and presented to a widow or parent whose loss was tempered - even if only slightly - by the honor of an Arlington burial.

"You would have thought he was a president," Rippetoe, 66, said afterward. "I was awed at what all they did."

When Arlington became a cemetery - 139 years ago, on seized land, in an act of vengeance - it was among the last places a family would want a loved one buried. Eight wars and 287,000 bodies later, it is considered both a national symbol and treasure.

Somehow, while conducting up to 30 funerals a day, it manages to avoid the aura of an assembly line, leaving survivors of young and old soldiers alike with the sense that their loved one has received one-of-a-kind treatment.

Somehow, despite periodic scandals over who gets buried there, it maintains a reputation as pure as the marble headstones that dot the hillsides.

Somehow, despite recurrent fears that it will run out of space, it keeps finding space - by annexing property, conserving land and tightening regulations - to ensure that the only national cemetery with veterans of all U.S. wars continues to bury those who have sacrificed for their country.

"People say, `You're going to have to close eventually at some point, aren't you?' And I say, `I hope not," says Arlington Superintendent John Metzler, who literally grew up in the cemetery, the son of an earlier superintendent. "There should always be an Arlington Cemetery. Unfortunately, our country will continue to have people die in the service. We need a special place to bury our heroes."

Until last year, the cemetery faced reaching capacity in 2025. That is far longer than anyone expected, either in the 1880s, or after World War I, or after World War II - all periods when it looked like Arlington would close. Each time, though, it found a way to extend its life.

To conserve space, Arlington began "tiering" or stacking caskets of family members in graves in the early 1960s. Later, it began restricting burials; they're now limited to long-serving or highly decorated veterans, and soldiers on active duty.

More recently, the cemetery has reduced the space allotted for cremated remains, limited headstones to standard issue, and made plans to move all underground utility lines so that they run under roads, freeing up more space for graves.

With the addition of 12 acres of National Park Service land this year, and expected transfers of adjoining Army and Navy land, officials now say there is enough space for burials to continue until 2060.

"My mission is to make the cemetery last for as long as possible," Metzler says. "That's number one on my list."

But it is far from the only concern. There are 5 million visitors passing through each year. There are 500 acres of lawn to cut, and 202,000 gravestones to trim around. And, most important, there are 25 to 30 funerals to carry out each day.

With most World War II veterans well into their 80s and Korean War veterans not far behind, national cemeteries are busier today than at any time since the Civil War. Deaths among veterans are expected to peak in 2008, and the Veterans Administration, which oversees all of the 131 national cemeteries except Arlington and the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Cemetery in Washington, projects 110,000 national cemetery burials that year.

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