WASHINGTON – Calvert County veteran John Smith thinks American Airlines pilot Charles Burlingame died like a hero and that he deserves to be buried like a hero.
So Smith offered to give up his own burial space at Arlington National Cemetery when he learned that the Defense Department would not bend the rules for Burlingame, who was killed fighting hijackers who later flew his plane into the Pentagon on Sept. 11.
“It’s more important to me that Mr. Burlingame and his family have their burial plot at Arlington where they want it,” said Smith, of Huntingtown. “I don’t need to be buried there. I can always find a place to be buried.”
Pentagon officials said offers from Smith and at least two other veterans are touching — but the offers will not change their decision to deny a plot to Burlingame, a Navy veteran and reservist.
“The reality of it is, he has no spot to give up,” said Col. Jim Allen, a spokesman for Army Secretary Thomas White.
Allen said those who qualify for burial at Arlington are assigned a plot upon death and they cannot sell them or give them away.
Defense Department officials had said that, under a strict interpretation of their rules, Burlingame, 52, was eight years too young for interment at Arlington.
Smith, a retired Army major, said he qualifies for Arlington on two counts: He served in the Army for 23 years, starting as an infantry platoon leader in Europe during World War II, and he was a prisoner of war from Sept. 17, 1944, until his escape in April 1945.
Smith did not know Burlingame, but admired him for his actions on Sept. 11. He said he offered his plot to the pilot’s family because Burlingame looked like his “type of person.”
“I think it’s very small-minded of the Secretary of the Army to deny him the right to be buried in Arlington,” said Smith.
On Wednesday, he called Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, to offer his plot. Hoyer, in turn, sent a letter to White.
“It’s clear to me that the patriotism that inspired Mr. Smith to serve in World War II and in the U.S. Army for 20 years remains with his to this day,” Hoyer said in a prepared statement Thursday.
Hoyer’s district and Capitol Hill offices have received an “outpouring” of ideas about fighting terrorism and helping victims since Sept. 11, but Smith is the first to offer his cemetery plot to a victim. Smith’s proposal was “a unique offer for a unique situation,” said Stacey Farnen, a Hoyer spokeswoman.
Allen said White’s decision has not been reversed at this point, but that could change under legislation Congress is considering that could force the issue.
The Pentagon has said Burlingame could share his parents’ burial plot at Arlington, but his wife could not be buried with him, nor would he have his own headstone.
In addition to introducing legislation that would allow Burlingame to be buried at Arlington, Virginia lawmakers have also asked President Bush to grant a waiver so the former Herndon, Va., resident could have his own plot there. So far, no waiver has been granted.
Sen. George Allen, R-Va., who wrote a formal letter to the president Thursday, has been working with the Burlingame family on this issue since meeting with White on Sept. 17, said spokesman Matt Raymond.
“He (Sen. Allen) is aware of various legislative measures, but because there is a time-sensitive nature, ideally this would be resolved with the waiver,” Raymond said.
Raymond said Allen’s office has received a “substantial” number of phone calls from people supporting the Burlingame family, including one man from Florida who also offered his Arlington burial plot.
Col. Allen, the spokesman for White, said the Defense Department is “very sympathetic to the family and we want this thing to be resolved as quick as possible. It’s an emotional situation.”
He called Smith’s offer “a great idea” — but one that will not work.
“It sounds good, and everybody has their heart in the right place. I really applaud the people that have offered their space,” Col. Allen said.
Smith realizes that he does not own his Arlington plot and the Army’s rules do not allow transfer. But, he said, “the offer still stands.”