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Out of President's Sight, Arlington's Rows of Grief Expand

By Dana Milbank
Saturday, June 18, 2005

President Bush was in Minnesota yesterday talking about Medicare. The House was debating United Nations dues. And at Arlington National Cemetery, Army Spec. Louis E. Niedermeier of Largo, Fla., was being placed in Section 60, Grave 8188.

Sixteen days earlier in Ramadi, Iraq, according to his family, Niedermeier, a scout who pointed lasers to guide missiles to targets, was shot in the head by a sniper as he stepped from a Humvee. He was 20 years old.

Niedermeier, one of more than 1,700 American men and women who have died in Iraq, is the 144th to be laid to rest at Arlington. Arlington, just two miles from the White House, buries the Iraq dead at a rate of one or two a week.

But the nation's leaders are missing these somber and patriotic pageants. Members of Congress rarely attend. Top Pentagon officials do so only occasionally. And President Bush has yet to bury a fallen warrior.

Niedermeier was an enlisted man. He was just a kid who worked at Best Buy and joined the military because of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, so he did not qualify for the military band and horse-drawn caisson that officers get. But even his modest ceremony merited six military pallbearers, a seven-member drill team, a bugler and an Army chaplain. "Today, we lay to rest another patriot," Chaplain Kenneth Kerr told mourners. "Our nation owes him a debt of gratitude."

On bended knee, Gen. Michael L. Combest handed a folded flag to the grieving mother, Denise Hoy. She accepted her son's Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Good Conduct medal. After the rounds were fired and taps was played, she turned, sobbing, to speak. "I am so proud of my son," she said.

Aides say Bush has not attended a military funeral because he does not want to favor one ultimate sacrifice over another. They point out that he meets frequently with wounded troops and relatives of the dead, and he has remembered fallen soldiers on Memorial Day and similar observances. "Their funerals are a time for their family and friends to mourn and remember their loved one in a private way," said Scott McClellan, White House press secretary.

This is a departure from past presidents' practices. President Jimmy Carter attended ceremonies for troops killed in the failed hostage-rescue mission in Iran. President Ronald Reagan attended a service for Marines killed in Beirut. President Clinton went to Andrews Air Force Base to see the coffins of Americans killed in a terrorist attack in Nairobi in 1998.

Bush's absence from funerals has kept them off the front pages, one of several administration policies that have minimized Americans' exposure to the costs of war. The Pentagon has cracked down on allowing photographs of flag-draped caskets as they arrive at military bases. And, late last year, the administration began enforcing restrictions that keep photographers and reporters some 50 yards from services.

There is still no memorial for the Iraq dead, but their rows in Section 60 show the signs of fresh grief and recent death. Thirteen graves are too new to have tombstones yet; green metal markers with photos of the fallen suffice. Four graves have been filled so recently that they do not even have sod yet, just newly packed earth.

The Iraq dead, mixed with some of the 16 killed in Afghanistan, take up three rows in the cemetery and have begun to fill a fourth. The Iraq rows (a few soldiers from other wars are intermingled) begin with an Army Ranger killed on March 11, 2003, and show the extraordinary diversity of the military: There are standard crosses, Methodist crosses, Jewish Stars of David, the Mormon Angel Moroni, the Muslim crescent and star, and symbols of Asian faiths. One grave is adorned with baby pictures of the deceased. Other, larger stones, mark the mixed remains of troops killed in helicopter crashes and the like.

Awaiting the casket, Niedermeier's grave, the ninth one in the fourth row of the Iraq dead, held a concrete liner and was surrounded by synthetic turf. Ten chairs for the immediate family occupied the spot where the next Iraq burial will likely occur. A breeze tossed orchids from a graveside wreath.

The whole ceremony was executed in half an hour with mechanized precision. The drill team marched onto the field with their rifles. The bugler took position. And the pallbearers marched over to meet the hearse. Niedermeier's father, mother, grandmother and 11-year-old stepsister, all in black, followed the heavy metal casket to the grave.

Kerr, in his eulogy, recalled that Niedermeier "joined the United States Army by choice. This is what he wanted to do." He said the soldier fell "in service to the Iraqi people who are struggling for freedom." As well, Kerr said, "he wore that uniform for you, for me."

The chaplain read the 23rd Psalm. The drill team fired. The 11-year-old covered her ears. The bugler played. The mourners touched handkerchiefs to their eyes.

The brief ceremony over, Niedermeier's father, Edward, rose to speak to the mourners and reminded them that Wednesday would have been Louis's birthday. "He should have been 21," Niedermeier said. The mourners returned to their cars, the honor guard retreated, and the Niedermeiers, clutching their son's flags and medals, lingered a few moments longer at his grave.

Staff writer Lila de Tantillo contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company