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The resting place of heroes
By COURTNEY DENTCH
Courtesy of The Intelligencer
20 June 2005

A 21-gun salute shatters the solemn silence hanging over acres of sprawling green, dotted with small white gravestones. Marines, in crisp navy dress uniforms, reverently fold an American flag into the familiar triangle and present it to a grieving family. A bugler sounds the mournful notes of taps.

Most Americans know what these images mean - fallen military heroes being laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery amid the full honors due them. But few know what it's like to bury one of their own there.

"It's just incredible," said Buckingham resident Mike Phelan. His brother, Army Lieutenant Colonel Mark P. Phelan, was buried at Arlington last year. "They march you through that beautiful scenery and everyone stops and salutes. It makes you so proud to see it."

Members of a Sellersville family will learn that today, as they bid farewell to Marine Lance Corporal Bob Mininger. The 21-year-old Pennridge High School alumnus was killed in Iraq June 6 when a roadside bomb exploded near his Humvee outside Fallujah. He had been deployed since January and was on patrol searching for weapons when the explosive detonated, his family said. He will be buried at Arlington at 11 a.m. today.

"This will be a total military function," said Mininger's father, Tom. "It will be interesting to see how they honor their own. It will be a tremendous experience to go through down there."

The cemetery was established in 1864, after the federal government confiscated the land from Mary Anna Custis Lee, wife of Civil War General Robert E. Lee and daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, who built the Arlington House mansion on the 1,100-acre estate. The property was put up for public sale and was purchased by a tax commissioner for "government use, for war, military, charitable and educational purposes," according to historical information on the Arlington Web site.

Later that year, Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs, who commanded the garrison at Arlington House, appropriated the grounds for use as a military cemetery.

Four years later, Lee's son, George Washington Custis Lee, sued the federal government saying the property was illegally confiscated without due process. The Supreme Court agreed and the land was returned to him in 1882. A year later, Congress bought the property for $150,000.

Since then, more than 250,000 servicemen and women have been laid to rest there. On average, there are 27 services a day, said Lori Calvillo, public affairs officer for the cemetery. Active members of the Armed Forces are eligible to be buried at Arlington, as are most veterans and reservists who were honorably discharged from service. Civilian spouses and minor children may also be buried at Arlington, Calvillo said.

 
About 10 percent of the casualties from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan have been buried at Arlington, Calvillo said. More than 1,700 U.S. military personnel have been killed in Iraq since the conflict began in 2003 and 190 troops were killed in Afghanistan since 2001, according to the Department of Defense.

The waiting list to secure a burial date at Arlington can take months, but active duty casualties are given preference, Calvillo said.

"For interment services with full honors, it could take several months," she said. "But we give priority to personnel from Iraq and Afghanistan. We try to do it within a week or so."

Two other servicemen from the area who were killed in Iraq were buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Marine Corporal Patrick Nixon, 21, of Northampton, was killed in 2003 in a battle at An Nasariah. And Phelan, 44, of Green Lane, was killed October 13, 2004, in Mosul when a bomb exploded near his convoy vehicle.

"That was his wish," Mike Phelan said. "It was just awesome to see my brother honored that way."

The ceremonies are strictly military affairs, and a number of different honors are bestowed on those who are eligible. The standard service includes pallbearers to escort the casket, a firing party to sound the salute and a bugler to play taps. With full honors comes an escort platoon, which varies in size according to the rank of the deceased, a color guard, a military band and the traditional burial flag, which is presented to the family with the gratitude of the president, the nation and the armed forces.

The 3rd U.S. Infantry, or "The Old Guard," as it is better know, oversees much of the pomp for the military services, participating in an average of 16 a day, or 6,000 a year. The soldiers also maintain a 24-hour vigil at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.

While some cemeteries have run into space constraints, Arlington has a master plan to acquire more land, Calvillo said.

"We have enough land to continue the burials on a daily basis through 2060," she said. "We don't see a time when Arlington will be closed to burials."

Posted: 20 June 2005