Cohen Intervened on Army Burial
By John Solomon, Associated Press Writer Wednesday, November 26, 1997
Secretary Togo West told veterans groups Wednesday the "incidental involvement''
of Pentagon chief William Cohen didn't affect his approval of an Arlington
Cemetery burial for the father of a Republican congressional staff member.
West originally opposed the burial of Roland W. Charles at the national cemetery. He reversed himself after a meeting between Cohen and Charles' son, Robert Charles, a staff member on a House subcommittee that oversees the Pentagon, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
The limited space at Arlington has caused the military to tightly restrict burials there.
The memos show that West, expected to be nominated soon to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, cautioned Cohen against intervening in the case because it would be a ``big deal for veterans.''
Now Charles' case may become caught up in the controversy caused by reports last week that burial plots at the famed military cemetery in Arlington, Va., were being awarded to Democratic Party donors.
Those reports turned out to be inaccurate, but they focused attention on how a handful of special exemptions have been made for individuals to be buried at one of America's most hallowed locations.
West told the veterans groups Wednesday that the decision to authorize the elder Charles' burial was his alone.
"The fact is that Secretary Cohen's incidental involvement in the case played no role in my final decision,'' he wrote. ``In my view, in an appropriately concerned manner, he simply extended the courtesy to a family member of hearing him out and asking me to take a second look at the case.''
West said he eventually reversed himself ``out of a sense of decency for the family and its situation.''
Charles served two years active duty in the Navy in the 1950s and six years in reserve and received an honorable discharge for a medical condition.
But he was not a decorated-enough veteran to qualify for his own grave at the national cemetery. He would have been allowed to be buried at the existing grave of his parents except for an act of nature -- the roots of a 100-year-old tree encroached on the grave site, the documents stated.
In another development Wednesday, a major veterans group disavowed a statement by one of its officials that West should be denied a Cabinet seat because of his involvement in the earlier dispute.
Last week John Sickles, AMVETS National Service Officer in Pittsburgh, wrote a letter on the organization's stationery to Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., urging Specter to block the nomination.
Specter's staff distributed the letter at a news conference at which the senator, chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, raised concern over the burial issue.
AMVETS National Commander Josephus C. Vandengoorbergh, in a letter to The Washington Post, said his organization does not oppose President Clinton's possible nomination of West to be Veterans Affairs secretary ``and never has.''
Spokesman Dick Flanagan said the organization has been getting calls complaining about the earlier letter and was concerned that the controversy could hurt fund raising.
As for the Charles matter, Robert Charles, the top Republican aide on the House National Security subcommittee that has oversight authority for the Defense Department, asked for the help of a friend at the White House, where he was turned down. At the Pentagon, however, he got a private meeting with Cohen, a former Republican senator from Maine, the documents show.
Charles used official subcommittee stationery to make his original request for a waiver, denoting his title as ``chief of staff & general counsel.''
Congressional aides say Charles' boss, Representative Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, as well as the staff on a House subcommittee looking into the Arlington burial issue, generally were aware that he was seeking a Pentagon exemption, but did not assist it.
Charles said he regretted using the congressional stationery -- a mistake he attributed to the emotions of his father's death -- and said he mentioned he had met Cohen previously but never meant to suggest he was a friend.
Cohen asked West to reconsider his decision during a phone call July 22. The Army chief wrote back he was sticking to his decision but ``the secretary is always free to overrule me,'' the documents show.
On July 24, Cohen called the Arlington cemetery director, J.C. Metzler, to a meeting at his office with his chief of staff and Charles.
Cohen followed up the meeting with a letter thanking Metzler for coming, while adding, ``I remain hopeful we can find a positive resolution.''
That same day, West reversed his earlier rejection and granted burial rights to Charles' father.
Cohen's spokesman, Capt. Michael Doubleday,
said Tuesday, ``He looked at the case and it was his feeling, based on
humanitarian considerations, that a waiver could be granted.''
CHARLES, ROLAND WILBUR Jr