Expansive naval aid tied to family's service to US
By Anne E. Kornblut, Globe Staff, 07/23/99
WASHINGTON - The Navy played an extraordinary role in the recovery and burial at sea of John F. Kennedy Jr., deploying hundreds of crew members and two of its finest vessels to a mission almost never ordered for veterans or military personnel.
About 500 members of the military and their children are buried at sea each year. But they are buried en masse, their ashes scattered during normal naval exercises, without their families on board, a Navy official said yesterday.
By contrast, the Navy transported Kennedy family members yesterday to the ocean burial site aboard the USS Briscoe. The destroyer, which costs the Pentagon approximately $87,000 a day, had been directed to Massachusetts from the Virginia shore the night before. In addition two Navy chaplains were flown in, after Defense Secretary William S. Cohen agreed to a request from Senator Edward M. Kennedy and the family of Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and her sister, Lauren Bessette.
Ultimately, the cost of the Navy's involvement could run as high as $400,000, according to estimates by military analysts and a General Accounting Office report listing annual expenses.
Navy Lieutenant Commander Irene Smith said the event was ''not unprecedented.'' Under Navy rules, children of military personnel or ''other US citizens who are determined eligible ... due to notable service or outstanding contributions to the United States'' can be granted permission for burial at sea.
Kennedy qualified, according to a Pentagon statement, not only because his father was president and a World War II Navy hero, but also because Kennedy's own ''contributions to his country are both notable and outstanding.'' The statement cited his role as head of Reaching Up, a nonprofit group that assists people who work with people with disabilities, and his role on the President's Commission on Mental Retardation.
Nonetheless, officials were hard-pressed to recall naval participation in a ceremony such as yesterday's, in which none of the deceased had served in the military or held elected office. Analysts also said the Navy's three-day role in the search and recovery far exceeded normal practices, except when the accident involves a military plane.
''It's quite unusual,'' said retired Admiral Eugene Carroll, who spent 37 years as a Navy pilot. ''General aviation pilots crash all the time, and they don't go diving for submerged wrecks. That's almost unheard of. If there hadn't been direct directions from the White House, this would not have happened.''
Smith, the Navy spokeswoman, also said it was highly irregular for a ship's course to be altered for a funeral. Under normal circumstances, she said, Navy officials ''will not get a ship underway just for a burial, because of fuel constraints.''
''It takes a lot of money to get the ship underway,'' she said. ''This was a request from Senator Kennedy.''
President Clinton earlier defended extending the time period for recovering Kennedy's plane ''because of the role of the Kennedy family in our national lives and because of the enormous losses they have sustained in our lifetimes.''
''If anyone believes that was wrong, the Coast Guard is not at fault - I am,'' Clinton said at a news conference Wednesday. The USS Grasp, the Navy salvage ship that was brought off the coast of Martha's Vineyard on Monday to retrieve the plane and the victims, was believed to be returning to Virginia later this week.
Vice President Al Gore yesterday defended Clinton's decision to extend the Coast Guard search, saying it was appropriate given the Kennedy family's connection to the country.
''I think it was clearly the right thing to do,'' Gore said in an interview with WMUR-TV in New Hampshire.
The Pentagon said yesterday that although the Defense secretary directed the destroyer to be used for the Kennedy funeral, the ''impact on the operational schedule of the Briscoe was minimal.'' The ship, which carries 300 sailors and 26 officers, sailed from the waters off Virginia on Wednesday afternoon and is scheduled to return there today.
''The ship was going to be at sea anyway,'' Pentagon spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon said.
And yet Bacon also confirmed that the military has been forced to cut back its participation in veterans' funerals in recent years.
Whereas many veterans once received a military detail at their funerals - such as having two soldiers present to fold an American flag and a third to play ''Taps'' on the bugle - the Pentagon is now ''not able to provide full teams,'' Bacon said. Army Lieutenant Colonel Tom Begines also said it is an ''increasing strain to provide honors,'' primarily because of a lack of resources and the growing number of older veterans.
''Seeing the ship off Martha's Vineyard, that would pay for a lot of buglers for a lot of people who've done a lot more for their country,'' said John Pike, a defense analyst for the Federation of American Scientists in Washington. Pike's father, who served in World War II and the Korean war, died several weeks ago and was denied a bugle player at his funeral by the Army, he said.
The Pentagon has not raised the subject of reimbursement by the Kennedy family, and does not break out the costs of its ships per day. An associate of the Kennedy family said last night that the family had not discussed paying the military, but would make a reimbursement if there is an appropriate way to do so.
To many, payment hardly seemed appropriate, or necessary. ''Most people, except Kennedy-haters, can't even understand the question,'' said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.
''That's what a grateful nation does. We don't bury James Dean or Elvis Presley, but we haven't had many presidents assassinated, and I think we should feel some special responsibility,'' Hess said. ''I think it's just plain an exception to the rule, something the nation chooses to wink at because of the uniqueness of the situation. You don't write rules or regulations for a situation this unique.''
This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 07/23/99.
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