WASHINGTON, DC (WAFB) - The secretary of the US Army announced Friday he has approved an exception to policy that will allow a Louisiana guardsman from Louisiana to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
"As the nation's premiere military cemetery, Arlington National Cemetery holds a unique place in the history and hearts of the United States," said Secretary of the Army John McHugh. "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."
Staff Sgt. Thomas Florich, 26, of Baton Rouge, was one of 11 service members killed in a Black Hawk helicopter crash off the coast of Florida during a training exercise. The cemetery's executive director initially denied the request because Florich was not on active duty at the time of the crash. An advisory panel reviewed the case and supported the decision for denial based on the cemetery's strict eligibility requirements for in-ground burial.
According to a release from the US Army, McHugh agreed there was a "compelling justification for granting this request for an exception to ANC's interment eligibility criteria" after he reviewed the family's request. He specifically noted that while Florich was training in his capacity as a member of the Louisiana National 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. The release stated those conditions led McHugh to reverse the Army's earlier decision.
"As the US military evolves, reserve and National Guard service members train alongside their active duty counterparts with increasing frequency, 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 wrote in a subsequent memorandum.
"This will allow me to some day take his unborn daughter and show her what service is and explain to her who her father was," said Stephen Florich, father of Staff Sgt. Florich. "It is good to see our nation do the right thing for those that serve."
He has also ordered a review of the Code of Federal Regulations, which governs eligibility for burial at Arlington, to see if changes may be needed.
"As the cemetery's stewards since 1864, the United States Army has a duty and responsibility to ensure that we are able to meet the needs of eligible veterans and service members who desire Arlington National Cemetery as their final resting place. 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. Staff Sgt. Florich is clearly deserving of this honor and his nation's thanks," McHugh added.
"This means a lot, of course, not only to my extended family and the honor of my son who gave his live in service, but others who will follow," said Stephen Florich. "I thank all for what you've done, and it's appreciated. The system works."
Florich was a flight mechanic aboard the helicopter. Three other Louisiana guardsmen also died in the crash. They were identified as Chief Warrant Officer 4 George Wayne Griffin Jr, 37; Chief Warrant Officer 4 George David Strother, 44; and Staff Sgt. Lance Bergeron, 40.
Seven Marines from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina who also died in the crash were identified as: Capt. Stanford Henry Shaw III of Basking Ridge, New Jersey; Master Sgt. Thomas Saunders of Camp Lejeune; Staff Sgt. Liam Flynn of Queens, New York; Staff Sgt. Trevor P. Blaylock of Lake Orion, Michigan; Staff Sgt. Kerry Michael Kemp of Port Washington, Wisconsin; Staff Sgt. Andrew Seif of Holland, Michigan; and Staff Sgt. Marcus Bawol from Warren, Michigan.
"The Louisiana National Guard thanks the Secretary of the Army for his consideration of this appeal that is deeply personal to the family, friends and loved ones of Staff Sgt. Thomas Florich," said Maj. Gen. Glenn H. Curtis, adjutant general of the LANG. "We sincerely appreciate the tremendous outpouring of support offered from across the country to the Florich family. This Soldier's burial at Arlington National Cemetery is a fitting testament to his sacrifice and honorable service to our state and country."
Congressman Ralph Abraham, M.D., R-Alto, issued the following statement regarding the Army's decision to allow Staff Sgt. Thomas Florich to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
"I am very pleased to hear that the Army will allow Sgt. Thomas Florich to be buried in Arlington. I've said from the beginning that he deserves this honor for giving his life in service to our country. My prayer is that his family now can find some solace in their loss knowing that their son will be honored as the hero he is," Dr. Abraham said.
"It's great when the government does the right thing – and today it did. We appreciate Army Secretary McHugh taking a fresh look at the circumstances surrounding this hero and his family. Staff Sgt. Florich and his family will now receive the honor they deserve. We wish Sgt. Florich's wife Meghan the best in the upcoming birth of their baby, and the entire family will remain in our prayers," said Congressman Garrett Graves, R-Louisiana.
Congressman Graves spearheaded a letter with nearly 120 Republican and Democrat Members of Congress to the Secretary of the Army supporting Staff Sergeant Florich's burial at Arlington National Cemetery. Congressmen Palazzo (R-MS), Walz (D-MN), Stivers (R-OH) and the Louisiana delegation were all strong supporters of the Florich family.
"Staff Sergeant Thomas Florich gave his life for our country," said U.S Senator Bill Cassidy, M.D., R-Louisiana. "I thank Secretary McHugh for honoring his sacrifice by allowing him to be laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. Sgt. Florich's family will continue to be in our prayers. His life, sacrifice and service will never be forgotten."