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Sacred ground

August 13, 2005|BY TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

More than 4 million visitors come to the country's most famous cemetery each year, according to its estimates.

Some come to bury family members. Some come to visit the graves of loved ones already there. Others come for a firsthand glimpse at the final resting place of politicians, astronauts, Supreme Court justices and soldiers from every war the United States has fought since the Civil War - and some from before.

Tourists, both foreign and domestic, pause at the base of one of its best-known tombs to snap photographs of the flame memorializing the nation's youngest president, or head south over the grounds to where an honor guard keeps watch over the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Everywhere are reminders that visitors should treat the grounds with dignity and respect, and through most of Arlington National Cemetery's 624 acres, the silence is broken only by the sound of jets taking off from nearby Reagan National Airport.

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Overlooking the graves of the slain Kennedy brothers - one a president and the other aspiring to that office when they died - is stately Arlington House, originally the manor house of a large estate and built as a monument to the first president by his step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis.

It was here in 1861 that Custis' son-in-law agonized over a letter resigning his commission in the U.S. Army. Robert E. Lee left his home at Arlington House two days after submitting it to serve as a major general in Virginia's Confederate forces.

Later in the Civil War, the federal government confiscated the estate. The first burials were conducted in May 1864.

Since then, the remains of nearly 300,000 American veterans and their dependents have been interred at Arlington. Among the most recent are four U.S. airmen whose remains were buried on Thursday along with those of an Iraqi pilot who died with them in a plane crash in May. The Iraqi pilot brought to 63 the number of foreign nationals buried at Arlington.

Shuttles line up daily at the visitors' center to transport tourists to all of Arlington's notable memorials. But the first sight to greet them is a large sign outside the center that calls the cemetery "our nation's most sacred grounds" and issues a caution.

"Please conduct yourselves with dignity and respect at all times.

"Please remember these are hallowed grounds."

And for one Hagerstown family, therein lies the rub.

Since hearing from a Herald-Mail reporter that the ashes of the convicted killer of their parents had been placed at Arlington, the children of Daniel and Wilda Davis have mounted a protest that has members of Congress rethinking eligibility requirements for interment at national cemeteries. The Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee confirmed this week that it will review regulations, and a spokeswoman for the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs said that committee likely will take a second look as well.

Russell Wayne Wagner, 52, died in February while serving two consecutive life sentences at the Maryland House of Correction Annex in Jessup, Md. His cremated remains were placed in the cemetery's columbarium last month. After learning of Wagner's criminal record, the U.S. Army ruled that his remains would stay there because his sentence left open the possibility for parole.

Because he was serving two consecutive life sentences, Wagner could have been considered for parole starting in 2024 - assuming he received the maximum time off for good behavior and other credits, said Raymond Smith, the operations administrator for the Maryland Parole Commission.

Wagner was honorably discharged from the Army in 1972.

The columbarium is a series of fieldstone courtyards surrounded by walls of niches containing the ashes of service members and their spouses. The niches are sealed with granite covers engraved with their names and ranks. There are fountains, benches and trellises covered with flowering vines inside the courts.

The courts occupy a spot at some distance from the cemetery's better-known monuments, and adjacent to an area where workers in bulldozers are preparing for the cemetery's expansion. The expansion comes in anticipation of the number of World War II veterans seeking burial at Arlington.

Services at Arlington are provided at no cost to the family, according to public affairs officer Lori Cavillo. Standard military honors, which Wagner received, include pallbearers, a firing party and a bugler. Services with full military honors are a little more elaborate. Headstones and niche covers also are provided at no cost.

The cover on Wagner's niche is one of several new memorials marked with a temporary card; engraving of a headstone or niche cover can take two to three months, Arlington documents say.

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