"Our troops serving overseas should be focused on doing their jobs, not worrying about whether their family members will be deported," said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., at the National Press Club in March 2019.

"Our troops serving overseas should be focused on doing their jobs, not worrying about whether their family members will be deported," said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., at the National Press Club in March 2019. (Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., wants to prohibit U.S. presidents and vice presidents from being buried at Arlington National Cemetery unless they’ve served in the military.

Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran and retired U.S. Army officer, introduced legislation Wednesday to bar nonveteran presidents and vice presidents from Arlington. The cemetery is nearing capacity, and the Army, which operates it, has proposed to restrict eligibility criteria. If fewer veterans and service members can be buried there, open spots shouldn’t go to presidents or vice presidents who haven’t served, Duckworth reasoned.

“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.

Current President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have not served in the military. Duckworth has been a longtime critic of Trump and his medical exemption from the Vietnam War draft.

Only two U.S. presidents are buried at Arlington National Cemetery: William Howard Taft, who died in 1930, and John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963.

Kennedy served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. As a lieutenant, he commanded a patrol torpedo craft in the South Pacific. He was awarded a Navy and Marine Corps Medal and a Purple Heart.

Before he was president, Taft was President Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary of war. During World War I, Taft enlisted in the Connecticut Home Guard as a show of support for the war. The home guard carried out duties of the Connecticut National Guard while guardsmen served on active duty.

No U.S. vice presidents are buried at Arlington.

U.S. Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy proposed last year to restrict eligibility criteria for burial at Arlington in a move to extend its use as an active cemetery for the next 150 years. McCarthy’s announcement in September 2019 kick-started a long rule-making process to change the criteria.

Under rules now, most veterans and military retirees are eligible for either above- or below-ground burial in Arlington. Even with recent expansions, Arlington is expected to reach capacity in the mid-2050s.

The Army proposed restricting below-ground burial to servicemembers killed in action, Purple Heart recipients, former prisoners of war, combat veterans who were awarded the Silver Star or above, service members who had combat-related deaths and combat veterans who also served as government officials and “made significant contributions to the nation’s security at the highest levels of public service.” In addition, Arlington plans to reserve 1,000 burial plots for Medal of Honor recipients.

Presidents and vice presidents also would be eligible for burial, regardless of military service.

Under the proposed changes, above-ground inurnment would be available to World War II veterans, armed forces retirees, combat veterans who served at least two years on active duty and veterans without combat service who worked as government officials and contributed to national security.

“The hard reality is we are running out of space,” Karen Durham-Aguilera, director of the cemetery, said at the time. “To keep Arlington National Cemetery open and active well into the future means we have to make some tough decisions that restrict the eligibility.”

As the debate about the restrictions continues, Duckworth said she wants to prioritize burial spots for “those who gave their lives to defend and protect the nation.” Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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