Army Secretary John McHugh has approved an exception to policy that will allow a Louisiana Guard soldier killed in a March 10 helicopter crash to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, officials announced Friday.
Staff Sgt. Thomas Florich was one of 11 service members – four Guardsmen and seven Marines – who were killed when their UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crashed in bad weather near Pensacola, Florida, during a training exercise.
Florich's family's request for burial at Arlington originally was denied by the cemetery's executive director because the soldier was on a training mission. A subsequent review by an advisory panel unanimously supported that decision based on Arlington cemetery's strict eligibility requirements for in-ground burial, the Army said in a statement.
After reviewing the Florich family's request, McHugh agreed that there was a "compelling justification for granting this request for an exception to [Arlington cemetery's] interment eligibility criteria," according to the Army's statement.
McHugh specifically noted that while Florich was training in his capacity as a member of the Guard, others who were killed were considered to be on active duty and were therefore eligible for burial at Arlington without an exception to policy.
"As the U.S. military evolves, reserve and National Guard service members train alongside their active duty counterparts with increasing frequency," McHugh wrote in a subsequent memorandum. "When these service members tragically lose their lives while training side-by-side for the same mission in defense of our nation, it is fitting to afford them the same burial privileges."
McHugh has since ordered a review of the Code of Federal Regulations – which governs eligibility for interment and inurnment at Arlington – to see if changes may be needed.
"As the nation's premiere military cemetery, Arlington National Cemetery holds a unique place in the history and hearts of the United States," McHugh said in a statement. "Because of the overwhelming number of requests for burials – and the limited space available – stringent criteria for in-ground burials were enacted to ensure that an otherwise eligible veteran or service member would not be denied their right to be buried at Arlington."
Florich, 26, was the youngest of the four Louisiana Guard soldiers killed in the March helicopter crash. All four men were assigned to 1st Assault Helicopter Battalion, 244th Aviation Regiment.
Florich had eight years of military service, enlisting in the Guard in 2007 as a Black Hawk repairer. He was posthumously promoted from sergeant to staff sergeant.
As the steward of Arlington cemetery, the Army has "a duty and responsibility" to ensure it is able to meet the needs of eligible veterans and service members who desire to be laid to rest there, McHugh said in a statement.
"To do that, it's important that we continue to uphold its standards and traditions, but, at the same time, recognize the service and sacrifice of deserving veterans and military personnel," he said. "Staff Sgt. Florich is clearly deserving of this honor and his nation's thanks."