When U.S. Marine Corps veteran Roy G. Johnson of Woodbridge died last spring, his wife, Beatrice, searched for the nearest veterans cemetery with an available gravesite.
Like most veterans, Roy Johnson didn't qualify for burial at crowded, exclusive Arlington National Cemetery, so his wife buried him at Culpeper, Va., 75 miles west of Washington. Visiting her husband's grave has been an all-day journey for the elderly woman, one she has been able to make only once a month, with the help of her sister, Glenna.
Those trips will end May 16, one day after the Veterans Administration dedicates the nation's newest veteran burial ground. On what was once 725 wooded acres of Quantico Marine Base, Beatrice Johnson will lay her husband to rest again, this time just seven miles from her Woodbridge home.
"To be able to visit when I need to be alone with someone I loved so much without having to drive all day is so wonderful . . . ," she said, recalling that her husband hunted deer on the base. "When he was alive, Quantico was his happy hunting ground, and when he can rest there forever, I'll be gratified."
With flat, easy-maintenance gravestones, hymns and Taps on tape, and utilitarian buildings, Quantico cannot compete with the hallowed charms of Arlington's green, stone-studded hills. That matters little, however, to the many veterans' families in the Washington area seeking graves there.
Thirty-five miles south of the District, with enough space (353,000 grave sites when all five sections are completed) to accept almost any veteran, Quantico is expected to become one of the VA's most popular cemeteries.
The May 15 dedication also will come to the relief of officials at Army-run Arlington Cemetery, who have been restricting burials there since 1967. There is still space at Arlington, the Army says, for veterans who chose to be cremated. And, of course, former presidents, highly decorated veterans and veterans killed on active duty can have a place there. But most other veterans must look elsewhere.
"I have to turn away several callers a day," says Arlington Superintendent Raymond J. Costanzo. "Quantico will be a tremendous benefit."
And not just to Arlington. Of the 108 burial grounds operated by the VA, only 48 have grave space available. The shortage is particularly acute in the Washington area. There are only two veterans cemeteries in the area, Baltimore and Culpeper, and Baltimore has no grave space.
Thus Quantico officials expect to have little trouble luring veterans away from Arlington, says VA cemeteries administrator B.G. Douma. "We'll be dealing with an entirely different group. We'll take any veteran with an honorable discharge . . . . "
"We'll be able to handle two burials at one time, 30 minutes apart," says Joe D. Willard, Quantico's director and de facto salesman. Willard has spent months preparing for the opening, touting Quantico's splendors to undertakers and veterans groups alike, even staging practice funerals with a casket borrowed from a local undertaker.
Air Force veteran Roland Laperle, a computer industry employe from Woodbridge, needed little convincing. When his wife of 29 years, Velma Charlene, died of cancer this winter, Laperle and his six children decided to postpone her burial until Quantico opened.
"I saw the drawings for Quantico the day my wife died," Laperle said. "The children and I decided on it because we just care about being close to her. She lived in this area for more than 20 years; we wanted her here."
The VA buried 41,422 persons in its national cemeteries last year and expects that number to increase annually until about the year 2015 as the nation's largest group of veterans, from World War II, advance in years.
The VA does not provide funeral services, but it will take care of everything except flowers once a coffin is inside the cemetery gates, at a cost to the taxpayers of about $210 per burial and $12 a year to maintain the grave.
Quantico officials expect to bury about 1,500 in the first year, and predict that number to will increase slightly in the following years. Not all veterans choose to be buried in national cemeteries, but the number generally increases when economic times are tough.
There is, of course, one other variable to consider in anticipating the rate at which veterans, in the jargon of the federal cemetery service, "participate in our program." But then, says the VA's Douma, "We can't plan for war."