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VA Adds Cemeteries To Meet Veterans' Needs

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 22, 2000 – More military veterans will have access to a dignified final resting-place closer to home thanks to a Department of Veterans Affairs cemetery expansion project.

Over the past two years, four new VA national cemeteries opened in New York (Saratoga), Illinois (Abraham Lincoln, near Joliet), Texas (Dallas-Fort Worth), and Ohio (Western Reserve, near Cleveland), said Roger R. Rapp, deputy undersecretary for operations for the VA's National Cemetery Administration.

The NCA has operated VA national cemeteries since 1973 (but not Arlington National Cemetery, which is operated by the Army), said Rapp, who noted the NCA's strategic goal is to ensure that the burial needs of veterans are met.

"Historically, we have not really served all the veterans as well as we could have, by not providing nearby cemeteries for large populations of veterans," Rapp said. "Now, we're looking to (establish) national cemeteries at other major metropolitan areas, too."

Those other areas include Atlanta, Detroit, Miami and Sacramento, Calif., he said, and the VA is also developing plans to establish cemeteries in Pittsburgh and Oklahoma City, Okla., as part of the Veterans Millennium Health and Benefits Act.

The new cemeteries should be open and serving veterans around 2005, Rapp said, who noted there are currently 119 national cemeteries in the continental United States and Puerto Rico. Of those, he said, 61 are open to all interments, 31 can receive cremated remains and family members of those already interred, and 27 are closed to new interments, but may accommodate family members in already occupied gravesites.

He said national cemeteries can take five to seven years to develop, range in size from 400 to more than 1,000 acres and can cost up to $24 million. Sometimes the VA enters into partnerships to establish state-run cemeteries to reduce costs, he said.

"Our grant program provides the state all of the cemetery construction funding, office equipment, kind of a 'turn-key' operation," Rapp said. "The state pledges to manage, administer and fund the operation of that cemetery.

"Generally, the states offer the land up front because states usually have land within their inventory you can site a cemetery on," he added.

Rapp said some existing cemeteries, such as the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, which serves the St. Louis area, would expand. This cemetery will grow using land acquired from the adjacent VA medical center, he said.

The majority of VA cemeteries have room to grow, Rapp said.

"The inventory of land is available at most of our larger new cemeteries for us to provide gravesites for the next 50 to 100 years," he said. "The cemetery we just opened near Chicago, Abraham Lincoln, is close to 1,000 acres. We envision that lasting 100 years or longer."

Congressionally directed VA studies in 1987 and 1994 showed a need to expand the national cemetery network to areas with populations of up to 1 million veterans, Rapp said.

He said surveys have shown that veterans are willing to drive an hour or two from home to use or visit VA cemeteries. This works out to about a 75-mile radius, Rapp said, noting more than 80 percent of the nation's veterans now have the option of choosing a state- or VA-run cemetery meeting that geographic criterion.

Rapp said he has visited many of the new VA cemeteries and was impressed with what he saw, especially a military honors burial at Saratoga.

"It is a vibrant, active, beautiful, national cemetery," he said. "There was a volunteer rifle squad ready to do the honors. I felt proud and the cemetery looked wonderful."

The VA's National Cemetery Administration serves the nation's 25 million living military veterans. That population, especially among aging World War II vets, is rapidly declining, said VA spokesman Steve Westerfeld, who noted 550,000 veterans died in fiscal 1999. Veteran deaths will continue to increase and reach an estimated peak of 620,000 in 2008, he added.

"It is important for people to know that over 1,000 World War II veterans are dying each day, in addition to another 500-plus veterans from other periods of service," he said. "Our job is to ensure that proper dignity and respect are provided to those who gave so much for their nation."

"We see the need for national veteran cemeteries well into the 2020s," Rapp said. "When the new VA-operated cemeteries are opened, and with the states doing what they're doing, we'll probably serve about 90 percent of the nation's veterans within that 75-mile criterion."

Visit the NCA Web site at www.cem.va.gov for more information about VA cemeteries and veterans' interment benefits.

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