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."
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."