Arlington National Cemetery. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Legion attends national cemetery update

In light of recent scandals at Arlington National Cemetery and Dover Air Force Base, the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs held a hearing March 8 on the status and upkeep of military cemeteries and memorials.

Shaun Rieley, assistant director of The American Legion’s Legislative Division, attended and reported on the hearing, "Honoring America’s Fallen Heroes: An Update on our National Cemeteries." Witnesses included Steven Muro, undersecretary of the National Cemetery Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs (VA); Kathryn Condon, executive director of the Army and National Cemeteries Program, Department of Defense; and W. Ashley Cozine, executive board member, National Funeral Directors Association.

Muro detailed a recently initiated systemwide audit of gravesites within VA’s national cemetery system. This audit followed a discovery at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas, that some grave markers in one burial section were incorrect. The discrepancy was revealed during a VA field test to verify the accuracy of newly formatted gravesite maps.

In her testimony, Condon highlighted improvements that have been made at Arlington National Cemetery since she last testified in the fall. Improvements include increased accountability through the introduction of a digital database and other technologies. She also addressed the issue of decreasing space at the cemetery, which will probably become exhausted by 2024. Current plans for future expansion would increase burial space to accommodate more gravesites through the mid-2050s.

Praising the quality of VA cemeteries in general, Cozine shared several testimonials from funeral directors across the country that underscored efficient yet compassionate operations. He went on to characterize VA’s funeral reimbursement policies as inefficient, adding that waiting times for reimbursement were often exorbitant.

Tim Tetz, the Legion’s legislative director, said the hearing gave Congress an opportunity to gauge the progress being made to improve accuracy and accountability at national cemeteries. He noted that a recent VA interim study of 85 national cemeteries that found gravesite discrepancies in seven of them. "Some might point to that survey, which found less than 100 errors in more than a million gravesites, as simple human error. But this is the kind of error that can’t be excused when dealing with the remains of our fallen heroes."

VA concluded some time ago, Tetz said, that nearly all alignment-type errors have been caused by contractors. "In these cases of contractor failure, the VA has already identified methods to ensure these mistakes aren’t repeated in the future. It is incumbent upon Congress and The American Legion to work with VA to ensure these methods are implemented."