How Jack Valenti got buried at Arlington, but others didn't

McClatchy NewspapersApril 1, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Jack Valenti won his final and most heartfelt lobbying victory when he was lowered into the ground at Arlington National Cemetery.

A World War II veteran, presidential adviser and wily Hollywood power player, Valenti pressed hard to secure an Arlington burial plot. His remarkable behind-the-scenes campaign outlasted three defense secretaries, records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show.

"When that moment comes for me as it will for all humans, I would dearly love to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery," Valenti wrote then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in December 2002.

The previously undisclosed documents show that Valenti's Arlington plotting was K Street smooth, from his calling Rumsfeld "Rummy" to his handwritten note reminding Rumsfeld's Pentagon successor, Robert Gates, of a lunch they once shared at CIA headquarters.

Valenti ultimately got the waiver he needed, over the resistance of the Arlington cemetery superintendent. On May 9, 2007, the former Army Air Corps bomber pilot, special assistant to President Lyndon Johnson and chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America was buried near John F. Kennedy's gravesite.

But Valenti isn't the only one to win an exemption from Arlington's strict eligibility criteria.

More than 60 Arlington burial exemptions have been sought and granted since Jan. 1, 2005, the documents obtained under FOIA show. The documents, spanning hundreds of pages, show families in pain, politicians at work and civil servants caught in the middle.

Some requests fail.

In January, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., and others sought an Arlington waiver for the late Hmong general Vang Pao. Vang Pao led Hmong forces in Laos during the Vietnam War, supporting the U.S., though not a member of the U.S. military.

Pentagon officials denied the request.

"It's B.S.," said Charlie Waters, a Marine Corps veteran and Fresno, Calif., resident who's worked closely with Vang Pao's family. "They've buried other people there, actors and actresses."

The Pentagon has so far has refused to identify the advisory panel members who recommended denial for Vang Pao.

Certainly, the cemetery has standards to uphold.

Valenti, for instance, won the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service with the 57th Bomb Wing; this wasn't, however, sufficient to merit an Arlington ground burial. He did meet the easier veterans' criteria for inurnment in the cemetery's Columbarium, but he wanted something more.

Many Arlington burial exemptions are relatively routine, apolitical decisions.

Sacramento, Calif., resident Lynn Silkitis, for instance, sought in 2004 to place her late mother's remains at Arlington. Her mother's stepfather had been a Marine colonel and had been buried along with his wife.

Silkitis wrote Arlington officials, noting that her mother, Nancy Williard Strausbaugh, was born in Washington to a "close-knit" family. Arlington officials granted the waiver, placing an urn containing Strausbaugh's ashes in the family grave.

"When it came to being with her mother and father, she wanted to go home," Silkitis said, "and I sent her home."

Some waivers aid families enduring nightmares cruel even by wartime standards.

In 2005, Army officials granted an exception to the Byers family of Iowa. The parents had lost one son, Army Sgt. Casey Byers, to an improvised explosive device in Taqaddum, Iraq. Nine days later, a domestic traffic accident killed another son, Justin, who was in the Army Reserve.

An urn containing Justin's ashes was placed in Casey's grave.

Wives who have remarried following their first husbands' deaths, likewise, can be granted a place at their first husbands' Arlington sites. This happened in 2006 for the late Melbourne, Fla., resident Josephine Griffin Burmester, whose first husband was an Army chief warrant officer.

Children, too, can sometimes secure waivers.

In 2005, for instance, the dwarf son of an Army colonel was given a waiver so his cremated remains could be placed with his parents. Usually, children must still be dependents to be buried with their parents, but the Pentagon granted a waiver.

"There is a smaller urn/box made just for these circumstances," the man's sister wrote. "It will sit right on top of both parents."

A handful of other exemptions, like the one granted Valenti, have served the politically well connected.

Valenti first convinced Defense Secretary William Cohen to grant a waiver on Jan. 18, 2001, several days before Cohen left office. Valenti then leveraged Cohen's unilateral decision to sway two other defense secretaries.

"I do not choose to have my wife scurry around trying to get my body into Arlington, which is why I write you now to save her that final desperation," Valenti advised Rumsfeld.

Arlington's then-superintendent, John Metzler Jr., warned in internal emails that Valenti's waiver would be a mistake. In another email, Metzler stated simply: "WOW." Metzler, nonetheless, lost the fight, and the Pentagon subsequently notified by email more than 20 congressional offices that Valenti's wish was fulfilled.

In 2008, famed Texas heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey likewise benefited from political help. Though a World War II veteran, DeBakey was not eligible for Arlington. On his behalf, Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison sought a waiver.

An advisory panel split 3-3 over granting DeBakey an exemption. The cemetery superintendent opposed it.

Nonetheless, DeBakey received the Arlington waiver from the assistant secretary of the Army, whose boss was then-Army Secretary Pete Geren, a former Texas congressman.

"(DeBakey's) combined military and civilian accomplishments are certainly worthy to be recognized and rewarded,"' the Army officials wrote.

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