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A Tradition Filled With Respect
Formal military burials are required by United States law for all the American heroes who served in the armed forces and were honorably discharged. This tradition includes a playing of Taps, the presentation of a United States flag to the family, and providing a grave marker. In some cases, the veteran is also honored with a 21-gun-salute and, for the most special of heroes, military pilots fly over a burial ceremony, their planes in rigid, close formation.
This program of honor for military veterans is, in many ways, unique to the world because of its scope: it includes all veterans even those whose deaths occur decades after their military service and are not remotely related to their service. Few, if any, other nations pay such endearing respect to everyone who serves in the armed forces.
Perhaps the most surprising part of this elaborate and expensive burial program administered by the Department of Veteran Affairs is that it has never been challenged by politicians and others interested in keeping expenses to a minimum. Even those who suggest sarcastically that the military can sometimes pay better attention to its dead than its living will typically not argue that the burial program should be eliminated. (Instead, of course, they argue for more benefits for living soldiers and veterans.) Showing a profound, deep respect for deceased veterans is just an unquestionable part of the way business is done in the United States.
That said, there have been a handful of modifications in the tradition over the years aimed, obviously, at keeping the veterans burial program expenses in check. Here is a summary of the program's limitations:
First, of course, the program is not open to those who have been dishonorably discharged. And officials are keen to point out that this applies even if a soldier has been discharged more than once, and one or more of the discharges was honorable. Because the great majority of military discharges are honorable, this limitation cannot be said to translate into huge savings for the burial program, but it does result in some savings while also greatly enhancing the overall value of an honorable discharge.
Next, the rule has been limited as of 1981 to those who served at least two years on active duty (not counting, of course, those who were killed or injured on active duty). The vast majority of soldiers serve at least that long, but, again, this will result in some savings to the program.
Another interesting exclusion is for those families who had chosen to purchase a private headstone rather than accept the free marker provided by the family. In previous years those families were entitled to replace the private Veteran grave marker with a free one. As of December 27, 2001, however, that option no longer applies. The U.S. government will not replace privately-made markers for veterans who died after that date.
And, finally, veterans may no longer reserve spots in national cemeteries. Reservations made before 1962 are still honored today, but, for later deaths, space is provided only as available. With more than 120 large-scale veteran cemeteries across the United States, it is unlikely that space will run out for veterans in the next few decades, but this change in the rule gives the government options to close cemeteries as needed. And that could end up resulting in long-term savings.