August 18, 2005, - 1:10 am

Preserve Arlington Cemetery: Murderer Should Be In, Iraqi Out

By Debbie Schlussel
It’s not every day that I side with a murderer over a man who gave his life helping our troops in Iraq.
But this is one of those rare instances.
The controversy concerns Arlington National Cemetery and who should be buried there.
Russell Wayne Wagner was buried in Arlington with standard military honors on July 27th. He served in the Army from 1969 to 1972 and was honorably discharged. He, therefore, qualified for burial in the prestigious military final resting place.
But Wagner was a convicted murderer. He murdered Daniel and Wilda Davis, both in their 80s, at their home. His death was almost as dishonorable. Wagner died in prison in February of a heroin overdose.
The Davis’ son, Vernon, is mortified that Wagner is buried in Arlington. He wants Wagner’s ashes removed from the time-honored military cemetery.


I have the deepest sympathy for Vernon Davis. I share his utter disgust. What Wagner did was outrageous, cold-blooded, and calculated. His burial at Arlington National Cemetery seems inappropriate. But Wagner met the standards of eligibility for burial at Arlington. He was eligible for parole at the time of his death, and only those veterans sentenced to death or life in prison without parole are barred from burial there.
Wagner’s remains should stay where they are.
Then, there is Ali Abass.
A Captain in the new Iraqi Air Force, he died with members of the U.S. Air Force when their plane crashed near the Iranian border, according to USA Today. In an earlier incident, Abass convinced possible Iraqi terrorists that he worked for the Iraqi agricultural department, while American soldiers hid nearby. He saved our soldiers’ lives.
Abass was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, last week. But Abass shouldn’t be there. He does not meet any of the standards of eligibility set forth by the cemetery.
Unfortunately, the powers that be decided to ignore the rules in Abass’ case in the name of PR and political correctness. “Things like this tend to draw us closer together,” Lt. Gen. Michael Wooley, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, told USA Today. He claimed that Abass’ burial at Arlington will help foster “long-term personal relationships” between the pilots and air crews of American and Iraq.
But is false diplomacy–or even just Abass’ heroism–a reason to ignore the rules at Arlington for a member of a foreign military force, when room is already running out for American servicemen who dream of being buried there?
I don’t think so.
And will U.S. servicemen get the 21-gun salute and fly-over by U.S. Air Force jets that Abass’ burial got?
Not likely.
Sadly, Abass is not the first non-U.S. serviceman to be buried at Arlington. Including Abass, there are about sixty such cases. Sixty mistakes and lapses in judgment. Sixty examples of political correctness run amok, at the expense of sixty future U.S. soldiers who will not have a place where they earned the right to be buried.
While it is true that some of Abass’ remains may have been mixed with those of the U.S. airmen with whom he died, that is not the stated reason for his burial at Arlington, and it is not the reason for the burial of the 59 others who were not members of the U.S. Armed Forces. While also true that Abass’ ashes will share a single coffin with those of the four Americans, again, that is not the case for the 59 others.
Unlike them, over 260,000 Americans have been laid to rest at Arlington–every single one of them earning the right to be there. Every single one of them having served honorably in the U.S. Armed Forces (unless they were close relatives of an eligible party, as provided for in the rules of eligibility for burial).
Arlington does provide an opportunity to apply for an exception to the rules, but is diplomacy between the U.S. and the new Iraq enough of a reason. Doubtful. That would open the floodgates to a lot of less admirable candidates–endless burials of non-U.S. servicemen a whole lot less deserving and heroic than Abass. Slippery slopes never end.
So, in this unique case, I’m siding with the cold-blooded, drug-addled murderer who took both parents from their son, over the hero who saved American lives–and paid the ultimate price for it. I hate to do that.
But those are the rules for burial at Arlington National Cemetery. The rules must have integrity.
More than 260,000 deceased veterans buried there might be turning over in their graves, otherwise. Not to mention those who will have to be buried elsewhere when space runs out.

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8 Responses

Debbie, I read your column often and rarely disagree with you. I have pointed you out to my daughters as an example of an intelligent woman’s feminine perspective on what is sometimes a testosterone dominated field.
However, your column on Arlington misses a basic point. I write this as an Army veteran. Rules are good, and should generally be followed. They should rarely be disregarded, else they lose their authority, and variations from them should be done with caution.
In the case of a murdering veteran, there may be no recourse, and perhaps the eligibility rules should be tightened. But as for the Iraqi pilot, I would gladly forego my eligibilty to a brother in arms, albeit a foreign brother, whose courage saved the lives of American soldiers.
He fought in the same war and gave his life for the same cause as Americans who may be rightly interred at Arlington. His heroism before his death earned him honor, and insomuch that it saved the lifes of American soldiers, I am willing for that honor to be resting with American heros at Arlington.
Thanks for your time, and please keep fighting the good fight. Were it not for the likes of you, the Michael Moores would have free reign.
Chris Bracco
Baytown, TX

NeoConOne on August 18, 2005 at 9:25 am

Hi Debbie,
Thanks for your column. I respect your opinion on these issues, but I do take issue with you over the Iraqi soldier.
The key event to becoming a US soldier is to swear to defend the people and the constitution of the US. The people are more important than the constitution, since the constitution is “by the people”.
Many have become US soldiers without understanding this oath or taking it seriously, but to those of us who have taken the oath seriously, there is a bond of service that is stronger even than citizenship in our great nation.
This Iraqi was, in action, defending the people of the US; and I believe that you can clearly read intent in his actions to support the principles of our constitution–even if he never took an oath, he knew the nation he was supporting.
If you hold to the letter of the law, you might also have to exclude such patriots as the minutemen–freedom fighters for our nation before it was a nation with a military and a constitution to swear to defend.
I believe that we are a nation of laws, and laws are good, because they set expectations, and they defend those who may be imperfect–endowing all individuals with rights. Your murdering veteran is a good example of the law’s protection.
But it does not make sense to use a law to violate the spirit of the nation which created the law. If burying a defender of our nation at Arlington would violate the spirit of our nation, or cause harm, I would agree to keep him out, but I believe that this Iraqi’s story brings honor.
Keep defending liberty and justice for all
Scott

thraknar on August 18, 2005 at 10:34 am

Iraqi Captain Ali Abass – American At Heart

Yesterday, at the Rally to Support the Military, Debby Argel Bastion told the story of Iraqi Air Force Captain Ali Abass who died with her son, USAF Captain Derek Argel, in a plane crash in Iraq on May 30th.

BLACKFIVE on September 26, 2005 at 1:14 pm

Debbie,
To be blunt, your issue is a non-issue.
The nature of the remains from the crash were such that the Iraqi’s remains were indistinguishable from the others, even using DNA testing. Separating the Iraqi remains from the Americans was not possible, as it was also not possible to separate the American remains from each other. Crash + Fire + Aircraft fuel make a pretty destructive combination. It’s also why so many remains from 9-11 remain unidentified. In light of this reality, the DOD’s actions were entirely appropriate.
Do not forget also that American Soldiers are buried in many countries across the planet. A little bending of the rules in this case isn’t going to corrupt the cemetery with “foreigners” if thats what you are worried about.

Gryph on September 30, 2005 at 3:15 pm

I can assure you that the family of Ali has cried every day, not only for their loss, but for the fact that they cannot visit where he is buried. Ali was one of the finest Air Force officers I have ever served with, in any country’s uniform. He was buried in Arlington not for some PC reason, and not for PR, but because some remains were burned in the crash and could not be separated and identified. The only other alternative was to bury the joint remains in Iraq. I am happy for all of the families that Ali’s family made the sacrifice to give closure to the American families.

asfoorsaghir on September 30, 2005 at 6:46 pm

I am a Vietnam War combat veteran.
When I look out over the field of headstones at Arlington I think of honor and sacrifice, courage and patriotism.
I think of the men who died in combat with fear and pain coursing through their shattered bodies to their last second…young, having never experience life in the fullest;I think of the men and women who died later of their wounds; and the old who bore the scars, both mental and physical, from privation and horrors only a very few can fully understand.
I think of these men and women as heros and of those that survived, I prefer to think that their contribution to our country and to the world, did not stop after their service. That they pulled their lives together, raised families , built careers and lived their lives as well and as honorably as they served their country. Of course, that is just how I think of them… certainly it isn’t always a reality.
In the movie Saving Private Ryan, when Ryan as an old man kneels over the grave of the captain sent to find and extract him he asks his wife: “Tell me I’ve been a Good Man.” He is seeking reassurance that the men who sacrificed their lives in combat, on his behalf, did not do so in vain. That he was worthy of their sacrifice and did them proud in how he conducted the life he was fortunate to have had. I will think of Arlington soldiers who lived beyond their wars this way.
When I stand over that field the next time, I don’t want for one second to think I am honoring a murderer, a rapist, a kidnapper, or a pedophile. I don’t want one of my tears of gratitude and admiration to fall on one of their graves.
In this country if you commit a felony and are imprisoned you lose your right to vote; you lose your right to own a firearm. These rights are protected under the Constitution, but they are lost when you cross the line of civility and become an enemy of the people .
The rules at Arlington should be changed. There is no room there for the dishonor of capital criminals.
As for that heroic Iraqi captain; he can have my spot in Arlington.

bart on October 8, 2005 at 1:34 pm

Debbie,
I thank you for your concern. However, after reading your article and the posts others have left I’m not sure if you have the full story. It is true that SOME of Capt. Abass’ remains are buried in the United States. However, they were only the remains that were unidentifiable. The remains that were identified as his returned to Iraq with his father. (http://www.af.mil/news/story.asp?storyID=123011295) You will find support in the second to the last paragraph. I can also assure you this happened because I flew him home along with his very grateful father.
You have shown great interest in the military and seem to have concern to protect its heritage. We would love to see you as part of our team and would welcome a new face in Combat Camera. This way you could get closer to the facts. When you speak with your recruiter have him/her look me up, I’d love to swear you in.
Again, thank you for your support and I look forward to serving with you.
–Mike

mike on November 27, 2005 at 12:54 am

You will have to copy and paste the URL in the previous post without the last parentheses. If you just click on it, it will not work.
Thanks and cheers to all, Mike

mike on November 27, 2005 at 12:57 am

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