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August 16, 2009

The families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are being told to wait -- sometimes two months -- until their loved ones can be buried with full honors in Arlington National Cemetery .

The hallowed memorial site, which handles up to 27 burials a day, is so overwhelmed with the bodies of elderly veterans and young soldiers that families are told they'll have to go without full-honors ceremonies if they want a timely burial, according to a spokesman.

"We're losing veterans at a pretty good clip -- World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War," said Dave Foster, a spokesman for the military.

He said soldiers killed in battle in Iraq or Afghanistan are given priority.

But that still means a two-month wait.

Jill Stephenson, the mother of Army Ranger Cpl. Benjamin Kopp, who died on July 18 from battle wounds suffered in Afghanistan, was told her son couldn't be buried with full honors -- which includes a horse-drawn caisson, a firing party and a bugler -- until October.

"It makes me wonder why our national cemetery only has two caissons available for use with full-honor funerals, forcing families to wait a ridiculous amount of time to have one at their loved one's service," Stephenson wrote in an e-mail.

"If Ben's passing changes this, then I will add it to the list of prayers he gave away to help others and would be honored to raise awareness for the cause."

Kopp, who was raised in Rosemont , Minn. , was grievously wounded on July 10 during a raid on a Taliban safe haven, during which 10 of the extremists were killed. He died a week later in an Army medical hospital in Germany . He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.

Even in death, Kopp was a hero. His heart was donated to Judy Meikle, a friend of the Kopp family, who suffered from a life-threatening condition.

Officials told the slain hero's mother that her son was entitled to full honors but that the cemetery didn't have a caisson available. Stephenson decided not to wait, and buried her son Friday at Arlington in a dressed-down ceremony.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, who was contacted about the family's plight by one of Kopp's New York Army buddies, last week fired off a letter to Arlington 's superintendent asking for an explanation.

"The military needs to find a way to direct more resources to accommodate the families of our slain heroes who seek full military honors at Arlington ," the senator said. "Families shouldn't have to choose between full military honors and a timely funeral."

In January the cemetery changed its policy to allow full honors for any soldier killed in action. Before that, only enlisted soldiers who had received the rank of chief master sergeant or its equivalent could be buried with full honors at Arlington , the final resting place for President John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Medgar Evers and Joe Louis, and the site of the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Arlington officials refused to answer questions about the burial backlog.

Some have accused Arlington of playing favorites and allowing others to jump ahead of the line.

Last month, retired Maj. Gen. David Wherley and his wife were buried in Arlington -- complete with an F-16 jet flyover -- a week after they died in June's DC commuter train crash.


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