Father of Baton Rouge soldier killed in helicopter crash: ‘My son … earned his place in Arlington’ _lowres

Thomas Florich

Reversing its previous decision, the Army will now allow a Louisiana guardsman killed in a training exercise to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, a ruling that has prompted a review of the site’s criteria for burial privileges.

Staff Sgt. Thomas Florich, 26, of Baton Rouge, was killed in a helicopter crash off the Florida coast in March. He and three other guardsmen were participating in a training exercise with a group of Marines, all of whom died when the Black Hawk went down.

Florich’s family sought to bury him at Arlington, which his father said had always been the guardsman’s wish. But the military said Florich was ineligible because he died while training. His ashes could be enshrined in an above-ground monument but not buried in the rapidly filling cemetery, the Army said earlier this month. The family appealed and was again denied.

The decision prompted backlash from politicians, particularly those from Louisiana, who implored the military to reconsider.

Friday, Secretary of the Army John McHugh announced he would grant an exception so Florich could be buried in the National Cemetery.

“We are very, very thankful and glad to see the system works,” said Florich’s father, Stephen Florich.

“This is meaningful in so many ways — not just for my son, but for the aviators and the soldiers who know the nation is standing behind them.”

The decision to allow Thomas Florich’s burial may have much broader implications. In the same statement announcing the exception, McHugh noted he has ordered a review of the codes that set the requirements for burial at Arlington.

McHugh’s given reason for granting the exception hinged on one specific detail. Thomas Florich was originally denied burial because he was “on active duty for training only.” The Marines, however, were on active duty.

“As the U.S. military evolves, reserve and National Guard service members train alongside their active duty counterparts with increasing frequency,” McHugh said in the statement.

“When these service members tragically lose their lives while training side by side for the same mission in defense of our nation, it is fitting to afford the same burial privileges.”

The struggle for Arlington will be finding room for all the honored dead. This month, a cemetery spokeswoman said the site is expected to be full sometime around the 2050s.

“Arlington National Cemetery has strict eligibility criteria (for interment). … This is to ensure that, given the cemetery’s limited space, an otherwise eligible veteran or service member will not be displaced. Exceptions to the strict eligibility criteria are rarely approved when the request is for a new grave,” the Army wrote in a statement when Thomas Florich was denied burial.

McHugh echoed the sentiment Friday, saying Arlington has adopted “stringent criteria” because the cemetery receives an “overwhelming number of requests for burials” but must retain enough space for all eligible service members.

“To do that, it’s important that we continue to uphold its standards and traditions but, at the same time, recognize the service and sacrifice of deserving veterans and military personnel. Staff Sgt. Florich is clearly deserving of this honor and his nation’s thanks,” McHugh said.

The decision was greeted with praise by a number of politicians, including Louisiana’s two Republican senators, who lobbied for the burial. Sen. David Vitter said the guardsman “surely deserved the honor,” while Sen. Bill Cassidy thanked McHugh “for honoring (Thomas Florich’s) sacrifice.”

“There was a great outpouring of support from many states” and from both sides of the aisle, Stephen Florich said.

Some veterans even contacted his family to offer their own plots in Arlington, which is not allowed, but the offers touched Stephen Florich nonetheless.

“That takes the air out of your lungs. You have no idea how humbled I am,” he said.

The family has no set burial date, as Thomas Florich’s widow is eight months’ pregnant and waiting for medical clearance to fly to Arlington, Stephen Florich said.

“Her husband, Tom — Staff Sgt. Florich — will rest in peace,” the guardsman’s father said.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.