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Long Wait to Be Buried at Arlington National Cemetery
Thursday, August 20, 1998
In the months before he died from lung cancer, retired U.S. Army Col. Earle A. Johnson Jr. outlined for his family his plans for a funeral service with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

Johnson, 75, had lived a full military life, starting at West Point. During World War II, where he saw combat in the European Theater, he was awarded the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart. He became an Army logistician and served in the military until 1970, when he retired as executive officer of Cameron Station in Alexandria.

After Johnson died July 31 at his home in Alexandria, his family began arranging for the service at Arlington. Johnson qualified for a spot in that hallowed ground, but he would have to wait for it. In fact, shocked family members learned, they would have to wait until Aug. 19, nearly three weeks after Johnson's death, before he could be buried.

"A three-week wait for a burial is a national disgrace," said Johnson's daughter, Jeanne Strong, an Alexandria resident.

Long waits for funerals are not new at Arlington Cemetery, which has been under severe strain in recent years for two main reasons: the aging of the World War II and Korean War veteran population, and defense budget cuts for honor guards and other resources for military funerals. But a 19-day wait is pretty unusual. 

"I've never seen one that length," said Col. Dave Childers, spokesman for the Military District of Washington, which oversees Arlington.

Military officials attribute the longer waits now to the summer season, when the bands and honor guards used at funerals also perform at numerous public events and concerts.

"The delay was caused by nothing other than the current work load," said Childers, who said the cemetery averages 22 funerals a day.

The Johnson family would not have had to wait so long if it had been willing to do without the extras attached to a service with full military honors, such as an honor guard, a caisson and use of the Fort Myer chapel. But family members wanted to respect the wishes of Johnson, who had given them precise instructions for a service with full honors.

"Being an Army man in logistics, he had it all planned out, down to what the Army band should play at the funeral," Strong said.

In the wake of the release of the movie "Saving Private Ryan," there has been much lip service lately about the debt America owes its World War II veterans. Needless to say, Strong finds a certain irony in this.

"I don't think any other family should go through this," she said. "It's not right."



Updated: 24 November 2001