A Louisiana National Guardsman who died in a helicopter crash during a March training exercise will not be allowed burial in Arlington National Cemetery.
He may still be cremated and his urn placed in an above-ground memorial, but the guardsman’s family is fighting for interment, and several Louisiana politicians have backed their efforts.
“My son … earned his place in Arlington,” said Stephen Florich, father of deceased Louisiana National Guard Staff Sgt. Thomas Florich, 26.
In a statement, the U.S. Army contended that because Thomas Florich died in a training mission, he does not fit the requirements for burial at Arlington. In the increasingly crowded cemetery, allowing Thomas Florich’s interment would displace another eligible service member or veteran such as one who dies in active duty, the Army said.
Stephen Florich called the decision a “travesty.”
“He was not in a commercial aircraft, on a commercial venture to make money. He was in uniform,” Florich said of his son.
“He was killed in uniform doing his job, training for, not if, but when people went into harm’s way.”
Thomas Florich, of Baton Rouge, was flying in a Louisiana National Guard Black Hawk helicopter March 10 during a training exercise off the coast of Florida. The helicopter crashed and Thomas Florich, the three other Louisiana guardsmen and seven U.S. Marines aboard were all killed.
The Louisiana National Guard did not return multiple calls for comment Tuesday.
Though there are many different requirements and exceptions, burial in the National Cemetery is generally granted to members of the armed forces who die on active duty and veterans who have been given honorable discharges following active duty, as well as their spouses and minor children.
Arlington has had to adopt tighter regulations as the site fills up, cemetery spokeswoman Melissa Bohan said Tuesday.
“Arlington will run out of space at a certain time,” she said, possibly sometime in the 2050s at its current size.
Arlington expanded its space for urns in 2013 when it added rows of above-ground memorials that can hold thousands of urns.
If his family elects to pursue cremation, Thomas Florich’s remains may be placed in an urn, which will then be placed in a small vault in one of the above-ground memorials, Bohan said Tuesday, citing a U.S. Army statement on the case.
“(Thomas Florich’s) record of service makes him eligible for inurnment, so he may be forever enshrined in Arlington National Cemetery; however, since at the time of his death he was on active duty for training only, he therefore does not meet the well-established criteria for interment in Arlington National Cemetery,” the statement says.
The staff sergeant’s family requested an exception, which was unanimously denied by the Army National Military Cemeteries executive director and the Arlington National Cemetery Advisory Group, the statement continues.
“I think that we have an entrenched bureaucracy … that flies in the face of common sense,” Stephen Florich said.
Several Louisiana politicians have joined the family to request an exception be made for Florich.
Monday, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., wrote a letter to the secretaries of the Department of Defense and the Army, as well as the executive director of Army National Military Cemeteries and the superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery, urging them to consider an exception for Thomas Florich.
He said the staff sergeant “bravely enlisted in the Louisiana National Guard during the height of our great nation’s War on Terror. He gave his life for our country while participating in a combat training exercise, while his unit was on alert to be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.”
The senator also referenced a 1997 incident in which former President Bill Clinton allowed an Air National Guard pilot to be buried in Arlington after he was killed in a training exercise.
U.S. Rep. Charles W. Boustany Jr., R-La., also on Monday asked for an exception to be made, saying that while Thomas Florich may not have been on active duty, he “was supporting active-duty Marines when the training accident occurred.”
On the Louisiana House floor Tuesday afternoon, state Rep. James Armes, D-Leesville, urged state lawmakers to get the Louisiana congressional delegation involved in the effort to get an Arlington burial approved for Thomas Florich.
“He performed his duties and served his country and should be allowed to be buried in Arlington,” he told the chamber. “Please contact your congressmen, your senators and ask them to send a letter to the Secretary of the Army.”
On Tuesday, Bohan was unable to provide specific data on how often Arlington grants exceptions for burials, and on what grounds, including the incident referenced in Vitter’s letter.
In a statement, the Army wrote exceptions for a new grave are “rarely approved.”
According to the Arlington National Cemetery’s website, the secretary of the Army ultimately decides when to grant an exception, based on a number of criteria, including specific military or civilian service “that directly and substantially benefited the United States military.”
For Stephen Florich, his son’s burial in Arlington is a personal mission as well. Stephen Florich said he retired from the Army as a major and served in Afghanistan. Other men in the family deployed in the Korean War and to France during World War I.
Thomas Florich grew up surrounded by service members and veterans, his father said.
The two had even visited the National Cemetery together in the past, and Thomas Florich said he wanted to be buried there.
Stephen Florich doesn’t have a backup plan if he can’t get his son buried in Arlington, but he hasn’t given up the fight.
“I will never quit,” he said.
“My son wouldn’t quit on me.”
Staff writer Elizabeth Crisp contributed to this report. Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.