ARLINGTON, Va. -- The Acting Secretary of the Army announced today proposed changes to eligibility criteria at Arlington National Cemetery. This begins the process for the federal government to prepare for the public rulemaking process which includes public feedback to the proposed changes.

The nation's premiere military cemetery is at a critical crossroads in its history. Nearly all of the 22 million living armed forces members and veterans are eligible for less than 95,000 remaining burial spaces within these hallowed grounds.

A planned Southern Expansion project will add 37 acres of additional burial space for the nation's veterans. Southern Expansion includes the area nearest the Air Force Memorial and a part of the former grounds of the Navy Annex. However, expansion alone will not keep Arlington National Cemetery open to new interments well into the future. Without changes to eligibility, Arlington National Cemetery will be full for first burials by the mid-2050s.

"The hard reality is we are running out of space. To keep Arlington National Cemetery open and active well into the future means we have to make some tough decisions that restrict the eligibility," said Executive Director of Army National Military Cemeteries and Arlington National Cemetery Karen Durham-Aguilera.

The Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act directed the Secretary of the Army to establish revised eligibility criteria to keep the cemetery functioning as an active burial ground well into the future, defined as 150 years.

The Secretary established imperatives to recognize the individual's sacrifice, service and impact to the nation's security. The proposed eligibility criteria honors commitment to military service and is equitable across branches and eras of service. Additionally, any change should be easily understood, fair and consistent with Arlington National Cemetery's mission.

Years of outreach have guided the decision-making process. Arlington National Cemetery and its stakeholders -- military and veteran service organizations, military, government leaders, Congress, veterans, military service members and their family members -- have been working this issue very closely.

"This has been a very lengthy and deliberate process that has been done in the public domain," said former Superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery Katharine Kelley. "We have a Federal Advisory Committee at Arlington National Cemetery, an independent body mandated by Congress to look at very substantive issues related to the cemetery, and they have looked at the question of eligibility for many years," said Kelley.

The cemetery has maintained an active and ongoing dialogue with military and veteran service organizations over two and a half years of thoughtful deliberation and public outreach. Additionally, the cemetery has conducted public surveys that garnered input and feedback from these important stakeholders, as well the active duty component who serves today.

The cemetery received more than 250,000 responses to these national surveys, and the results offered a compelling look at the opinions and attitudes of veterans, family members and active duty populations. Ninety-five percent of respondents want Arlington to not only remain open, but remain open and active well into the future.

"We've made extensive efforts to listen and gather input as part of this process, and that feedback we have received has been part of the Secretary's deliberations and part of our discussions going forward," said Kelley.

Now that the Secretary has established the proposed criteria, once cleared, the Department of the Army will publish a draft rule in the Federal Register for public comment, adjudicate public comments and publish the final rule. Federal rulemaking is a deliberative process and is expected to take a minimum of nine months.

"This is a lengthy process, but it's another opportunity to have a say in what the future of Arlington National Cemetery should be for our nation," said Durham-Aguilera.

In addition to preserving 1,000 gravesites for current and future Medal of Honor recipients, the proposed revised eligibility criteria for those who honorably serve the nation are as follows:

For below-ground interment:

• Killed in Action, to include repatriated remains of service members
• Award recipients of the Silver Star and above who also served in combat
• Recipients of the Purple Heart
• Combat-related service deaths while conducting uniquely military activities
• Former Prisoners of War
• Presidents and Vice Presidents of the United States
• Veterans with combat service who also served out of uniform as a government official and made significant contributions to the nation's security at the highest levels of public service

For above-ground inurnment:

• World War II-era veterans, to include legislated active duty designees
• Retirees from the armed forces who are eligible to receive retired pay but are not otherwise eligible for interment
• Veterans who have served a minimum of two years on active duty and who have served in combat
• Veterans without combat service who also served out of uniform as a government official and made significant contributions to the nation's security at the highest levels of public service

Eventual implementation of revised eligibility will not affect previously scheduled services at Arlington National Cemetery. Additionally, the proposed revisions will not affect veterans' burial benefits or veteran eligibility at Department of Veterans Affairs 137 national cemeteries and 115 state veterans cemeteries.

Arlington National Cemetery will continue to actively engage stakeholders in the important decisions impacting the future of the cemetery.

More information at www.arlingtoncemetery.mil.