If you search TripAdvisor for things to do in Kent, Washington, as I did, the first choice is Tahoma National Cemetery. Ruth & I were surprised and reluctant to check this out. We didn’t consider a military cemetery a tourist attraction, but then we thought about our visits to pay our respects at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu and Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. So we went to Tahoma and were told that many people like us show up regularly, especially of 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 where I learned that there are 134 national cemeteries with 15 more being planned in places like Omaha and Cape Canaveral. Tahoma, which officially opened in 1997, is the only national cemetery in Washington State. Its mission is to serve Washington’s 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 a clear day. It’s 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. Inside it and in the separate administrative office, we heard some moving stories. For example, the next day the remains of Sgt. Harold Sparks would be buried at Tahoma. Sparks went missing 65 years ago in North Korea and apparently died in a POW camp. His remains were recently identified via DNA testing, and he was to be laid to rest at Tahoma on June 18. According to Tina Patel of Q13 Fox, 7,800+ Americans from the Korean War are still unaccounted for.
There are 46,000 veterans buried in Tahoma National Cemetery; 15,905 of them served in the Army and 9,408 in the Navy. Dependents account for another 12,186 interments. Two Medal of Honor recipients, Dexter Kerstetter and Jessie Barrick, are buried in Tahoma as is Sergeant First Class Nathan Ross Chapman, the first American serviceman to die in Afghanistan in 2002. If the veteran or service member’s family donates the American flag presented at the committal ceremony back to Tahoma, it is placed on the Avenue of Flags.