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Veterans group seeks federal upkeep of forgotten U.S. cemetery in Philippines

By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 31, 2010; A13

As Americans mark Memorial Day, a small band of veterans on the other side of the globe is waging a long-shot campaign on behalf of a silent constituency: thousands of U.S. service members, civilians and dependents buried in a largely forgotten American military cemetery in the Philippines.

The veterans want the federal government to take responsibility for Clark Cemetery, a burial ground on a former U.S. military installation that contains remains dating to 1900. Among the more than 8,600 people buried there are at least 2,250 who were members of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard and Philippine Scouts, a branch of the Army when the United States ruled the Philippines in the first half of the last century. Those buried at Clark include veterans of the Spanish-American War, the Philippine Insurrection, World War I, World War II and the wars in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq.

But the cemetery has fallen through the cracks of the U.S. bureaucracy, leaving its upkeep to volunteers led by a local post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and a U.S. company based in Kuwait.

"These veterans have all but been forgotten on this special day we honor and memorialize those who have served our country," said Larry Heilhecker, commander of VFW Post 2485 and chairman of a group that has stepped in to manage Clark Cemetery. "It is a shame that this cemetery has been long neglected by our government."

Heilhecker and others attributed the problem to an oversight when the U.S. government was negotiating with the Philippines 20 years ago on new long-term leases for Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base -- two of the most prized U.S. military installations in Asia. Those talks broke down in 1991 after the eruption of the Mount Pinatubo volcano heavily damaged both bases, forcing major evacuations by the Air Force and Navy. The Air Force formally handed Clark over to the Philippine government in November 1991, and the Navy sailed out of Subic a year later.

Clark Air Base and its cemetery became the responsibility of the Philippine air force, which ceded control to the government's Clark Development Corp. But neither showed any interest in maintaining Clark Cemetery, which soon fell into disrepair. Grass was not mowed, bushes were not trimmed, flags were not flown, and vandals and looters descended on the 20-acre site. A monument was destroyed, and metal fencing around the cemetery was stolen. The air base itself fared worse, with looters hauling away everything from toilets to landing lights.

Faced with what it viewed as conditions that dishonored those buried there, the local VFW post negotiated an agreement in 1994 to manage the cemetery and set to work restoring it. With no funding from the U.S. or Philippine governments, the post assembled volunteers for an initial cleanup and collected donations for ongoing maintenance.

Peregrine Development International, a U.S. company based in Kuwait and headed by Navy veteran Dennis L. Wright, provided new cemetery fencing and funded a full-time security service to prevent more looting. The company is involved in a $2 billion project to develop an aviation-oriented business and logistics park at the former air base.

U.S. veterans and former Philippine Scouts are still being buried at Clark at the rate of three or four a month. Most are Americans who retired in the Philippines and died there, but two were killed in Iraq -- a Filipino American soldier and a civilian Defense Department employee.

The VFW spends about $1,000 a month to maintain the cemetery and pay the salaries of four full-time Filipino employees, Heilhecker said. But he estimated that it would cost about $500,000 to bring Clark Cemetery up to U.S. standards and at least $3,000 a month to properly maintain.

Matthew P. Daley, a former U.S. diplomat who has taken an interest in the cemetery, said: "A first-class job could be done for $100,000 a year, which is not even spare change as our budgets go."

The VFW and its supporters want the cemetery to be administered by either the American Battle Monuments Commission, a federal agency, or the National Cemetery Administration, a branch of the Department of Veterans Affairs. But spokesmen for both said Clark Cemetery did not seem to fit their criteria. The commission maintains U.S. military cemeteries overseas -- including the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in the Philippines -- that are closed to new burials. The National Cemetery Administration maintains 131 national cemeteries in 39 states and Puerto Rico but none on foreign soil.

Ike Puzon, a former Navy officer of Philippine descent who is helping to raise awareness of the issue in Washington, said negotiators should have tied the Clark graveyard to the Manila cemetery during the base talks two decades ago. "It's just an oversight that happened," Puzon said. "It was one of the issues that fell through the cracks."

Now, he said, the solution may require an agreement between the U.S. and Philippine governments, such as a long-term U.S. lease of the cemetery, and congressional action directing the monuments commission to make an exception and administer it.

"There are some jurisdictional issues, but we've gotten around these in the past when our veterans are engaged," Puzon said. "Anybody who says this is impossible is not saying the right thing."

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