David H. Hackworth
August 3, 1999


American vets right across this nation are outraged at JFK Jr., his wife and sister-in-law receiving U.S. Naval burial services at sea.

From what I've heard about JFK Jr.-- a guy who never used an accident of birth as an excuse to cut the line and always quietly did the right thing for those less fortunate - he'd be the first to sound off that he did not deserve a burial with military honors.

The Department of Veterans Affairs projects that 560,900 vets will die this year alone. Many of these heroes aren't getting either a timely or an appropriate burial. Yet JFK Jr., his wife and sister-in-law were interred in one day with military honors.

"At Portsmouth, the waiting time to be buried at sea is six months," says a Navy Chief. "We have 128 dead sailors now waiting for their honors. I can't square how Kennedy, who never served, got special privileges. It's a national disgrace."

Because of the heavy burial demands, there's a backlog of 500 sailors waiting to be buried at sea, and the waiting time for interment at major military cemeteries such as Arlington can be up to three weeks. Vets buried at smaller cemeteries don't have the waiting time, but most don't receive full military honors either. In many cases, all that a grateful nation provides is a one-man flag detail and a taped recording of "Taps." JFK Jr., meanwhile, got a U.S. warship, a naval band and three Navy chaplains. The cost for this special treatment was half a million bucks, picked up by the taxpayers.

The military services that provide the burial details for our vets -- firing squads, chaplains and musicians from active and reserve units -- say they're over-stretched and don't have the money or resources to handle the work load. Retired Army Major R.M. Peterson says of the Kennedy burial, "My Father, Father-in-law and I gave 72 years of service to this country the 'Cult of Personality' rules, and government serves the powerful, not those who have served their country."

Congress must stop this abuse of power by the connected like Senator Edward Kennedy, who can pick up a phone and ask Secretary of Defense William Cohen to arrange for family members to be buried at sea, and snap, it's done. If Democrat Kennedy and Republican Cohen had listened to the advice of this country's warriors instead of their eager, can-do brass, they'd have understood the sacredness of a military burial and why they shouldn't be for sale. They'd have gotten the word that military burials are for those who've earned them, in most cases earned them the hard way by taking enormous risks and undergoing hardships that the likes of Kennedy and Cohen will never know.

I'd hoped this kind of abuse had been put to rest when former Ambassador Larry Lawrence was disinterred from Arlington National Cemetery. After faking WW11 service, he bought his way into those hollow grounds with megabuck political contributions. But out he went nonetheless.

Not only was Cohen wrong, so was the Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jay Johnson and every Naval officer in the chain of command, right down to the skipper of the U.S.S. Briscoe. Had any of these officers stood tall and said, "Burying three civilians aboard a naval ship with military honors is wrong," Kennedy, his bride and sister-in-law would more than likely have been buried at sea from a Kennedy yacht, which I suspect that JFK Jr. probably would have preferred.

This type of going-along-to-get-along by the brass is not only bad for morale, it's the same sort of behavior that, if allowed to go unchecked, will continue to contaminate and destroy our officer corps.

In Vietnam, for example, all of the generals went along with General William Westmoreland's dumb strategy even though they openly discussed how flawed it was. More recently in Somalia, General Thomas Montgomery allowed combat operations to be conducted without armor even though he knew tanks were needed to protect his soldiers.

The failure of senior leaders to do the hard "right" over the easy "wrong" will continue until Congress slaps the guilty in the chops. I suggest they start now by censuring Cohen and Adm. Johnson --an act that would return moral integrity to our officer corps faster than you could say "Profiles in Courage."