VA Burial Grounds Expand to Fill Need For More Graves

Maria Stokes visits the grave of her husband, Walter Stokes, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, at the Beverly National Cemetery in Beverly, N.J.
Maria Stokes visits the grave of her husband, Walter Stokes, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, at the Beverly National Cemetery in Beverly, N.J. (By Mel Evans -- Associated Press)
By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 29, 2006

As a grateful nation remembers its military dead today, the Department of Veterans Affairs is turning some of its attention to the veterans who have yet to fall.

With veterans deaths expected to peak at 687,600 this year and to remain high for years to come, the VA's National Cemetery Administration is in the midst of a major expansion of VA-run burial grounds. Historically, about 12 percent of veterans choose VA national and state cemeteries as their final resting place, according to VA figures.

"We're in the greatest expansion we've been in since the Civil War," VA Secretary Jim Nicholson said in an interview last week. "Every day now, we have 1,800 veterans pass away. Eleven hundred of them are World War II veterans, and more and more of them are choosing to be buried in VA cemeteries. So we need to be there for them."

About 3.1 million veterans and their spouses are interred at 123 VA national cemeteries in 39 states and Puerto Rico, officials said.

The department plans to nearly double the current capacity of 3.2 million grave sites, making available an additional 2.7 million sites by 2009. That is the year the steadily increasing annual number of VA burials of veterans and their spouses is expected to peak, at 119,497, VA officials said.

The expansion has been fueled by the passage of two laws, in 1999 and 2003, in which Congress told the VA to build a dozen new national cemeteries. Since then, four cemeteries have been opened in Elgin, Okla.; Bridgeville, Pa.; Holly, Mich.; and Canton, Ga. Others are scheduled to open in the next few yeas in Alabama, California (two), Florida (three), Pennsylvania and South Carolina, according to the VA.

The government has made a policy decision to try to locate more cemeteries within 75 miles of concentrated veteran populations of 175,000 or more.

"Our people analyzed who was being buried in our cemeteries and where they were from," said William Tuerk, VA undersecretary for memorial affairs. "If you get beyond 75 miles, people tend not to use us. Families want a cemetery close to where they are so they can come and visit the grave site. Seventy-five miles seems to be the barrier. You get past that and people's use of our facilities drops off dramatically."

Combat in Iraq and Afghanistan has raised Americans' awareness of military service and reminded VA officials of the importance of their duties, and so far the cemetery system has not had trouble providing suitable graves for military members killed in those conflicts, Tuerk said.

For veterans and their families, the availability of national cemeteries is about much more than convenience and logistics.

Peter Gaytan, director of the veterans affairs and rehabilitation division of the American Legion, the nation's largest veterans service organization, said the cemeteries provide both affirmation of individual veterans and a reminder of the national values that they protected and defended while in uniform.

"It's final recognition for the sacrifice and his service to his country," Gaytan said. "Even veterans who only serve three or four years, that's a common thread in their life. And they recognize that [service] throughout their life as an altering event that helped create them as an individual. Being buried in a veterans cemetery is a major recognition for their sacrifices."

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