- The Washington Times - Friday, December 7, 2001

The defining characteristic of bureaucracy is an often mindless adherence to "the rules" even when circumstances clearly dictate flexibility is called for. Such is the case of former Air Force Capt. Charles F. Burlingame III, the pilot of doomed American Airlines Flight 77, which the September 11 terrorists crashed into the Pentagon. Although Capt. Burlingame served as a carrier-based fighter pilot for eight years of active duty and spent 17 in the Air Force Reserves, he is being denied a grave of his own at Arlington National Cemetery. The reason? He died before his 60th birthday.

The rules say a retired reservist must turn 60 before he dies in order to be admitted. Of course, the rules here take no apparent cognizance of the fact that Capt. Burlingame didn't make it to his 60th birthday because he was killed by terrorists on September 11 in an assault on the United States that the president himself has described repeatedly as "an act of war." Although technically a civilian at the time, it's not a stretch to argue that Capt. Burlingame was, therefore, a casualty of war. The fact that he was a long-serving Air Force pilot who dedicated 25 years of his life to serving this country seems not to trump the technicality that he was not actually in uniform when he was killed. All that matters, it seems, is that Capt. Burlingame was not old enough when he was killed to satisfy "the rules."

"After careful consideration," wrote Assistant Secretary of the Army Reginald Brown on behalf of Secretary of the Army Thomas E. White, "he has decided to adhere to the established criteria for ground burial at Arlington National Cemetery… . He has maintained this determination on all requests for exception, both before and after the terrorist attack." Those are, after all, "the rules." The best our government is willing to allow at present is for the remains of Capt. Burlingame to be buried in the same plot as his parents. (His father, a former chief master sergeant, was entitled to a grave at Arlington.) But he will not be allowed a separate headstone, let alone a few feet of ground to himself. It would be against "the rules."

This would seem to be a case when "the rules" should be a little less absolutist. The spirit is what ought to matter. And by that criteria, Capt. Burlingame has certainly earned a space for himself at Arlington. As of yesterday, congressional lawmakers including Sen. John Warner were looking into the matter. The government should do right by Capt. Burlingame.

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