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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)

The history of the veterans cemeteries dates to the deadliest conflict on the nation's soil. On July 17, 1862, as the Civil War raged, Congress passed a law authorizing President Abraham Lincoln to buy land to be used as national cemeteries for soldiers who died while serving their country. Fourteen cemeteries were established within a year, often near the scenes of the bloodiest battles of the war -- many in the South, though the graveyards typically accepted only Union soldiers.

"That's where most battles were, and that's where most men fell," Tuerk said.

Within a decade, nearly 300,000 Union soldiers had been buried in 73 national cemeteries. In 1873, all honorably discharged veterans were declared eligible for burial in such cemeteries.

More cemeteries, run by the Army, were built in the West and Midwest over the following decades as the country and its military posts expanded in that direction. In 1973, however, Congress ordered that 82 national cemeteries be transferred from the Department of the Army to what was then known as the Veterans Administration. The VA already operated 21 veterans cemeteries at hospitals and nursing homes, so altogether, the new National Cemetery System consisted of 103 cemeteries.

The Army, however, retains control of two notable properties -- Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia and the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home National Cemetery, in the District.

In general, any honorably discharged veteran and his or her spouse is eligible for burial in a VA cemetery, Tuerk said. (Eligibility standards are stricter for Arlington National Cemetery, however, and generally require that the veteran have had a career in the armed services, have been decorated for distinction in service to the country or have been killed on active duty.) The VA arranges for a bugler to play taps and for seven riflemen to fire three volleys in salute. The department pays for the headstone, the burial plot, the grave liner and the cost of opening and closing the grave, Tuerk said. Two service members present a folded flag to the family.

"We're here for them if they want us," Tuerk said.

Joe Davis, a spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, said his organization understands that there will always be fiscal constraints on the cemetery system. But the cemeteries themselves should be equally important to veterans and non-veterans alike, he said.

"It all boils down to the final proper recognition to honor the life, service and sacrifice of the veterans," Davis said. "Without the American soldier, there wouldn't have been a country to found or a Union to save. . . . [Memorial Day weekend] is more than just a three-day holiday. Unfortunately, some Americans have come to take the military for granted, and especially the veterans."

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