ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
At Arlington National Cemetery today, a young soldier was laid to rest, Specialist Joseph Hernandez, who was 24 years old. He died two weeks ago when a roadside bomb hit his vehicle in Afghanistan. Arlington handles burials for soldiers like Hernandez every day, about 7,000 ceremonies every year. But today's was different, as NPR's Mary Louise Kelly explains.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: It was clear, blue skies today at Arlington. Frost on the grass...
(Soundbite of drumbeat)
KELLY: And the drum from an Army band. The band, along with a colors team, an escort platoon and a horse-drawn caisson, are reserved for full-honors military funerals. And before now, Hernandez wouldn't have qualified. That's because he was an Army specialist. That's a junior enlisted rank, not an officer. But late last year, the Army changed the rules to allow all soldiers killed in action to receive full military funeral honors regardless of their rank. Today, Joseph Hernandez of Hammond, Indiana, was the first to be buried under the new rules.
Mr. JOE DAVIS (Member, Veteran of Foreign Wars): This is the right thing to do.
KELLY: Joe Davis, from the group Veterans of Foreign Wars. He supports the new policy. He says it makes sense that any soldier killed by hostile fire in a war zone should get full honors. So why wasn't the policy changed sooner?
Mr. DAVIS: We don't think anybody ever asked the question. And that's the big thing. Sometimes it takes one person to get noticed on the right issue.
KELLY: On this issue, the right person turned out to be Sergeant 1st Class Robert Durbin. Durbin is currently deployed in Iraq. But he used to serve as a casket squad leader at Arlington. He carried President Reagan's casket. And Durbin says he just got to wondering why only officers received full honors.
Sergeant 1st Class ROBERT DURBIN (Former Casket Squad Leader, Arlington): Rank has nothing to do with honor. And my hypothetical example is that a second lieutenant can graduate Officer Candidate School. He could hypothetically die in a car accident, receive full honors at Arlington, whereas an enlisted service member with 20 years in the Army could be killed in action over here or Afghanistan and receive a standard honors funeral. To me, that just doesn't pass the common-sense test.
KELLY: Durbin caused a stir last spring when he convinced the Military Times to publish a letter about the disparity in honors. Then he kept pushing, writing to the Army secretary and to congressmen and senators. Finally, last month, the Army announced it was changing the policy to create, quote, a common standard for all soldiers killed in action and buried at Arlington. For Joseph Hernandez's widow, Alison Hernandez, the Army policy is personal. She's proud of her husband and argues that any soldier - whether specialist or sergeant or general - should be eligible for full honors.
Mrs. ALISON HERNANDEZ (Widow, Specialist Joseph Hernandez): What is the difference? Just because the rank is smaller - they were still doing the same job. They were killed for freedom, for our country, and for us. Everyone should be allowed to be given that same service. That just seems right to me.
KELLY: Alison and Joseph Hernandez met when she was 15. They were married four years and had two boys: Jacob, 2, and Noah, 9 months. While he was away in Afghanistan, Joseph called home every other day - right up until two days before he died.
Mrs. HERNANDEZ: And he just started talking about all these things he wanted to do. He said I want to take Jacob bowling. And I want to take you to a Cubs game. And we'll go out to Chicago, and we'll do this and we'll do that. And it was like, he's making all these plans. And I was just waiting for him to come home so we could do those things. And now it's like, OK, those are things that I won't get to do with him. It's so hard.
KELLY: At the ceremony today, Joseph Hernandez's two sons took turns on their mother's lap and were each presented with a carefully folded American flag.
(Soundbite of gun salute)
KELLY: Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.
(Soundbite from cemetery service)