The Heroes of Tahoma

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If you search TripAdvisor for things to do in Kent, Washington, #1 is Tahoma National Cemetery.  Ruth & I didn’t consider a cemetery a natural tourist attraction at first, but then we thought about our visits to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu and Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia to pay our respects. To be sure, we went to Tahoma and were told that many people like us show up, especially on holidays like Memorial Day. Tahoma’s brochure clearly states, “We welcome all visitors to this shrine for our nation’s heroes.”

Being at Tahoma was a profoundly moving experience.  I learned there that there are 134 national cemeteries with 15 more in places like Omaha and Cape Canaveral being planned.   Tahoma is the only national cemetery in Washington State and is there to serve its more than 650,000 veterans.  More than 3,000 committal services are conducted each year.  We were there on a Friday, normally Tahoma’s busiest day.  A volunteer told Ruth & me that it was a slow Friday because only 16 burial ceremonies were planned.

Tahoma takes up 158 acres and offers a sensational view of Mount Rainier on clear days.  It is unique in that it’s one of the first national cemeteries to have a volunteer-staffed public information center.  It’s at Tahoma’s entrance.  We heard some moving stories there and in the administration office.  For example, just that week the remains of Sgt. Harold Sparks received a Tahoma military burial.  Sparks went missing in North Korea in 1950 during the Korean War.  In the 1990s North Korea handed over more than 200 containers of human remains, and DNA testing confirmed that Sparks’ was among them.  He had died in a POW camp.  His family finally has closure.

Two Medal of Honor recipients are buried in Tahoma National Cemetery.  Burial sites are assigned “without regard to rank. ethnic or religious background, branch of service….” The vast majority of the 46,000 veterans and dependents buried in Tahoma were in the army,(15,905) or navy (9,408).  Services take place between 9 am and 3 pm Monday through Friday.  If the family donates the American flag it is given back to Tahoma, it is placed outside on the Avenue of Flags.

The first American serviceman to die in the war in Afghanistan is buried at Tahoma.  Sergeant First Class Nathan Ross Chapman died from hostile fire in 2002.  There’s a well-used gravesite locator outside the public info center.


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