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DoD Wrestles Conflicting Funeral, Personnel Demands

By Paul Stone
National Guard Bureau

WASHINGTON, Nov. 23, 1998 – "We consider today the somber issue of providing  services to those who have served, and to do so with dignity and  respect and honor." -- Rudy de Leon, Undersecretary of Defense  for Personnel and Readiness

Such were the sentiments Nov. 17 as the Military Funeral Honors Executive Roundtable met to find ways to increase military presence at veterans' funerals.

Chaired by de Leon, the meeting brought together DoD and Department of Veterans Affairs officials, as well as representatives from veterans and military service organizations and funeral industry associations -- all key players in coordinating and providing military support to funerals.

DoD has been criticized in recent years for not being able to provide requested support for veterans' funerals. The problem, DoD officials said at the meeting, is a large, aging population of veterans vs. a downsized military.

One quarter of the 26 million veterans alive today are over 65, and the number of veteran deaths is steadily rising, particularly among World War II and Korean War veterans. VA statistics show about 456,000 veterans died in 1989. By 1997, there were 537,000 veteran deaths -- an 18 percent increase that averages out to about 1,500 funerals per day. VA projects the death toll will rise through 2008 to about 620,000 per year.

At the same time requests for funeral details have risen, DoD has shrunk. Since 1989, the active force has fallen from 2.1 million to 1.4 million. About 365,000 service members are stationed overseas, and as many as another 100,000 are deployed on contingency operations. Similarly, the reserve components have gone from 1.2 million to 900,000 since 1989.

In addition, 77 U.S. installations have closed since 1989, and 20 more will close by 2001. Funeral details, in many cases, now have to travel greater distances to provide support. Still other obstacles include shrinking memberships in the veterans and military service organizations that have provided honor guards when DoD personnel are not available, and the fact all services coordinate and support military funerals in different ways.

An internal DoD examination of 9,800 requests for funeral support received from June 1 through Sept. 30 this year helps illustrate the problem, according to Gail McGinn, principal director for personnel support, families and education at the Pentagon. About 23 percent of those requests could not be fully supported, she said, and 2 percent received no support. She said the goal now is to make sure that 2 percent is reduced to zero.

As a result of the Nov. 17, meeting, DoD is now examining a host of options that received wide support during discussions. Among the options are:

  • Creation of a national toll-free phone number to centralize all requests for funeral support from families and funeral directors.
  • Establishment of a national volunteer network of veterans who can be called upon to provide funeral support when military teams are not available.
  • Setting of standard minimum requirements for funeral support.

After the meeting, de Leon said he was encouraged by the spirit of cooperation among agency representatives. He added that DoD is committed to working with Congress to balance the need to properly honor veterans with the increasing demands being placed on military personnel in the current strategic environment.

DoD is required to report to Congress by March 31, 1999, on its plans to improve military support for funerals. Provisions in the 1999 National Defense Authorization Act require DoD to provide or arrange for an honor detail at the funerals of all veterans beginning Jan. 1, 2000.

Regardless of the eventual solutions reached to properly honor the nation's veterans, the urgency of the situation was perhaps best summed up midway through the meeting by Arlington National Cemetery Superintendent Jack Metzer: "In the short time we have been here in this morning, we've probably had 200 veterans die across the country."

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