- The Washington Times - Monday, May 31, 2004

When Vietnam veteran Chuck Gannon signed up with the U.S. Marines, he considered himself among a band of brothers. And when he returned from his tour of duty, he retained his bonds with that brotherhood and joined American Legion Post 108 in Cheverly.

But the aging veteran population — such as Mr. Gannon and the tens of thousands of other veterans — is scrambling on the homefront over a different sort of battle: space in a national veterans’ cemetery.

“It’s important to me to be buried with other military veterans, because I’ve been surrounded by veterans all my life,” he said.

Indeed, brothers even in the end.

Nearly half a million U.S. military veterans die each year, and new veterans’ cemeteries are planned to meet the increasing death rates of men who fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, but there is an immediate shortage of burial spots. Skyrocketing costs of funeral services have also contributed to the demand.

To meet this demand, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has opened a new cemetery in Fort Sill, Okla., and will open another in Pittsburgh later this year. Next year, the VA will open two more, in Detroit and Atlanta. It will open seven others by 2008.

“The big picture is that this nation has promised burial to all qualified veterans and their families,” said retired Army Brig. Gen. John W. “Jack” Nicholson, undersecretary for memorial affairs for the department’s National Cemetery Administration (NCA). “We are now in the midst of the largest cemetery expansion since the Civil War.”

It is estimated that American veterans are now dying at a rate of nearly 1,100 per day.

“Although the veterans’ annual death rate is expected to peak in 2008 (with 676,000 deaths; up from 626,000 in 2000 and 515,000 in 1995), the number of gravesites we maintain will continue to increase indefinitely because an ever-increasing number of veterans choose to be buried in national cemeteries each year,” the general wrote in a recent report.

More than 2.5 million American veterans and their families are buried in 120 national cemeteries throughout the United States.

Of the NCA’s Civil War-era national cemeteries in Virginia, which opened in 1862, 10 are now closed because there is no more space, the general said in an interview.

“But the size of these new cemeteries will be between 300 and 700 acres each, and we can inter 1,000 casket burials per acre,” Gen. Nicholson said.

In addition to the three new cemeteries opening in the next two years, veterans cemeteries are planned in Sacramento, Calif.; southern Florida (near Miami); Jacksonville, Fla.; Sarasota, Fla.; Greenville/Columbia, S.C.; Bakersfield, Calif.; Philadelphia and Birmingham, Ala.

Gen. Nicholson said the extra space is needed, given the growing requests for interment in veterans’ cemeteries.

“In the current fiscal year, we’ll inter 91,000 in the national cemeteries. By 2008, we expect to inter 109,000 there. Every year, we get the feeling that the interment rate is not going to decline. So we have to continue to expand our cemeteries and staff,” Gen. Nicholson said.

World War II and Korean War veterans account for more than 80 percent of national cemetery burial requests. However, the number of requests for Vietnam veterans is rising fast. In 2002, the number of national cemetery burial requests for Vietnam-era veterans (10,675) nearly equaled the number for Korean War veterans (11,858).

Asked why more veterans wish to be buried in military cemeteries, Joe Davis, spokesman for the 2.6 million-member Veterans of Foreign Wars, said: “Veterans want to be buried with their comrades in arms, and they’ve earned that right. The VFW supports any efforts to honor our dead and to make things better for living veterans and their families. It is a VFW priority that the Department of Veterans Affairs obtains funding for the expansion and maintenance of the veterans cemetery administration.”

Said Donald Mooney, assistant director of the American Legion’s National Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division: “Veterans are opting at higher rates for burial in national military cemeteries, because this is the only benefit the VA offers to all honorably discharged veterans, regardless of service-connected status or disability status.”

Burial in a national cemetery is open to any member of the armed forces who dies on active duty or to any veteran with an honorable discharge. It is also open to National Guard members and reservists with 20 years of qualifying service; and to spouses and minor children of veterans who qualify.

Burial benefits include the opening and closing of the grave, a grave liner, a government headstone or marker, a burial flag, a presidential memorial certificate and perpetual care of the grave at no cost to the family.

Unlike Arlington National Cemetery, where there is a four- to six-week wait for burial, burial in one of the VA’s 120 national cemeteries can be accomplished in two days. Funeral services include a 21-gun salute to the deceased veteran and the playing of taps.

Mr. Gannon said he plans to be buried in a veterans’ cemetery in Cheltenham, Md., in southern Prince Georges County. He described the graveyard as a “Maryland-run version” of a national cemetery.

Across the country there are 55 state veterans’ cemeteries funded by VA grants for purposes of construction, expansion and improvements.

“My mom and dad are both at Cheltenham, and my military service entitles me to burial there,” said Mr. Gannon, who works as a bartender at American Legion Post 108.

“I have a family plot for my children,” he said, but added that he and his wife will be buried at Cheltenham.

Mr. Mooney said the significantly lower cost of burial in a veterans’ cemetery is “probably the largest factor” in the increased demand. He also noted that more and more younger soldiers and veterans are seeking military burials, because they are less likely than older veterans to have family grave plots.

Ralph G. “Peanut” Mulligan, 69, who served in the Navy during the Korean War, says that when he dies, he will be buried with his late wife, Nancy, at a state military cemetery in Crownsville, Md., also funded by the VA.

“As a vet, if your wife dies before you and is buried at a veterans’ cemetery, you have to be buried there,” he said. He noted his name is already on his wife’s headstone.

A member of the American Legion for 39 years, Mr. Mulligan said: “We fought hard for these cemeteries,” because it’s become increasingly difficult “for average guys like me to be buried at Arlington.”

He noted that interment in national or state veterans’ cemeteries is cost-effective, pointing out that it cost “just $179” to bury his wife at Crownsville. The average cost of a private funeral today is between $6,000 and $7,000.

Rodney Loper, 77, of West Chester, Pa., said he plans to be buried at the Indiantown Gap National Cemetery in Annville, Pa., 89 miles from his home, unless one closer opens up before he dies.

“As a veteran, it’s my right and what I want to do,” said Mr. Loper, who was drafted by the Army in 1946 and, for a time, worked in a local VA office assisting other veterans.

Albert W. Miller, 81, of Middletown, Pa., a World War II Navy veteran who served in the Pacific theater, said he and his wife also are contemplating burial at Indiantown Gap, which is 20 miles from their home.

“We bought four plots in a private cemetery a while back, but now we’re considering taking advantage of the opportunity for burial in a national cemetery,” he said. “I appreciate the honor of having a [military] burial service and a place for burial with other veterans. And it would save money for my family members, since this change would allow them have the private plots.”

Julius Finnern, national secretary for the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, said he bought a private plot 40 years ago and intends to use it. But he said many in the organization are opting for interment in national cemeteries or electing cremation and having their ashes spread over Pearl Harbor.

“The average age of a Pearl Harbor survivor is 85, and we’re losing two a day,” Mr. Finnern said in a telephone interview from his Wisconsin home. He said two VA-run cemeteries have opened in that state in recent years and are busy with funerals.

“It’s always been the case that vets like to be around other vets. They recognize they get in trouble when they are around civilians,” he chuckled.

Frank Towers, 87, of Brooker, Fla., executive secretary of the 30th Infantry Division Association, composed of some 1,500 World War II veterans, said that organization is “losing one or two members weekly” and that many veterans he knows have opted for burial in national cemeteries.

Asked why, Mr. Towers said: “I think it’s mostly politics. Politicians in Washington get up and tell veterans they’ll give them free burial plots and perpetual care. And given the financial strain a lot of veterans are under, a lot of vets go for it.”

Mr. Towers said he and his wife have a private burial plot, primarily for the sake of convenience.

“The closest national cemetery is 75 miles away, and my private plot is just a few miles away. Family members don’t want to travel long distances to visit a gravesite,” he said.

Polls show that a key reason the national and state cemeteries are in such demand as a final resting place for veterans is the VA’s commitment that every graveyard be maintained as a national shrine.

Gen. Nicholson acknowledged “there are many cemeteries suffering from deferred maintenance,” but added, “We’re trying to upgrade their appearance so that each is a memorial to our vets.”

He said Congress has helped in the effort to create a “shrinelike status” for the national cemeteries. Four years ago, he said, Congress hired an independent contractor to visit all the cemeteries and compile a list of improvements that should be made.

“The contractor listed 928 projects, including new roads and new buildings, at an estimated cost of $290 million,” Gen. Nicholson said. “We’ve already received $35 million, and in the fiscal 2005 budget there will be an extra $23 million for this work.”

He predicts it will take 10 years to complete the improvements.

“But we’d like to achieve this in five years, not 10. We’d like larger amounts of money appropriated,” he said.

Most land acquired for national cemeteries is purchased. But sometimes it is donated, either by another government agency or a private individual.

Of the 120 cemeteries operated by the VA, 60 are designated as open, meaning they can still accept full-casket burials; 26 are open for cremated remains only; and 34 are closed.

The closest national cemetery to Washington designated by the NCA as still open is in Quantico.

According to NCA spokesman Mike Nacincik, “closed” national cemeteries, such as those in Baltimore, Annapolis and Alexandria, may still be open for burial of spousal remains or for “inurnment” of cremated remains. In 1995, cremations represented 28 percent of all interments in national cemeteries; in 2002, their share had risen to 37 percent.

Once the VA’s 11 new cemeteries open, the department will have a total of 131 graveyards under its control. Two other national cemeteries — Arlington and the United States Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home in northwest Washington — are administered by the Department of the Army. Fourteen national cemeteries are maintained by the National Park Service.

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