The Department of Defense (DoD) has conveyed to Congress a report containing a proposed policy to improve the availability and delivery of military funeral honors for veterans. The policy, if accepted by Congress, will require the military Services for the first time, upon request by next of kin, to provide specified funeral honors for any veteran who has served honorably in the armed forces. The DoD report responds to a requirement in Section 567 of the fiscal 1999 Strom Thurmond National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The proposed policy responds to the report of the Conferees on the NDAA that indicated the intent of the Conferees that the requirements for funeral honors specified in the NDAA would become effective on Dec. 31, 1999, only if the Secretaries of Defense and Veterans Affairs did not recommend an acceptable alternative. If accepted by Congress, the new DoD policy will be implemented on Jan. 1, 2000.
Commenting on the proposed DoD policy, Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Rudy de Leon said: "Working in concert with the leadership of the Department of Veterans Affairs, the military Services, and many military and veterans services organizations, we considered in a very deliberate and compassionate way how we can best use the resources we have to provide military funeral honors for our veterans. Our heartfelt, shared goal was to honor appropriately and consistently those veterans who have faithfully defended all Americans and our national interests. These proposals accomplish this important goal."
The DoD plan would improve access to military funeral honors by establishing a toll-free "request" number and an Internet web site which fully explains the benefit. The Department would maximize its ability to honor requests by working in concert with local veterans service organizations that currently provide military funeral honors and by expanding the use of National Guard and Reserve forces. Under this plan, the Department will honor every request by sending a team that will consist of at least two individuals who will conduct a ceremony involving the folding and presentation of the American flag. At least one of these individuals will be a member of the parent Service of the deceased. The playing of "Taps" will also be a required part of this ceremony, whether by bugler or by the use of a high quality audio recording. The military Services may provide additional honors subject to the availability of resources.
Another major set of improvements under the proposed policy concerns streamlining the process for requesting funeral honors, communicating requests to the providers, and tracking the provision of honors. The Department will maintain a toll-free number and Internet web site for use by funeral directors to obtain funeral honors when veterans' families request honors. The Department will also provide information packages to the funeral directors to aid in this effort.
As is current practice, both active and Reserve forces will be used to perform military funeral honors. Members of the National Guard and Reserve have volunteered countless hours to perform funeral honors for veterans. To recognize and encourage volunteer service by Guard and Reserve members, under the proposed DoD plan new incentives for the performance of funeral honors duty would be provided. The performance of funeral honors duty would be equivalent to inactive-duty training but could not substitute for required training. Retirement credit above the current cap would be provided for funeral honors duty.
More than 16 million of our nation's 26 million military veterans served during the World War II era. The nation mourned the passing of 537,000 veterans in 1997, an increase of 18 percent compared to 1989. By 2008, veterans' deaths are projected to increase 36 percent compared to 1989. Conversely, the size of the active duty military has decreased by 35 percent, from 2.1 million in 1989 to 1.4 million today, and the Reserve forces have decreased in size by 25 percent. Of the 1.4 million active duty Service members, more than 300,000 are stationed or deployed outside of the United States at any given time. The geographical challenge has increased as well. Over the past decade, 81 of 495 major military installations in the United States have closed, with 16 more major installations scheduled to close by 2001. As a result, funeral honor guard details must often travel greater distances than in years past to provide support.
The proposed DoD policy was developed through a joint effort to determine the best solution to the increasing challenges. As part of this effort, the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs hosted an Executive Roundtable on Nov. 17, 1998, in Washington, D.C. Eighteen military and veterans service organizations participated, including: the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Paralyzed Veterans of America, The Retired Officers Association (TROA), American Veterans (AMVETS), American Ex-Prisoners of War, the Blinded Veterans Association, Gold Star Wives, The Retired Enlisted Association, the Military Chaplains Association, the Fleet Reserve Association, the Air Force Association, the American GI Forum, the Korean War Veterans Association, the Marine Corps League, the Noncommissioned Officer Association, the Army Aviation Association of America, and the Reserve Officers Association. Senior officials from two national funeral directors associations and congressional staff also participated.
While Congress considers the proposed DoD policy, the military Services will continue to emphasize the fullest possible implementation of existing DoD policy.