Yesterday, Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012, Deputy Under Secretary for Field Programs Glenn Powers and Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs Ronald Walters, members of the National Cemetery Administration, met with the AMVETS Legislation team and members of the VFW to discuss updates and progress being made on NCA projects. Currently, more than 80 percent of deceased veterans are buried at a national or state veterans’ cemetery within 75 miles of the veteran’s home. The NCA’s goal is to increase this number to 95 percent by 2015. To accomplish this, the NCA has continued to identify geographic areas with a large veteran population who do not have access to a national or state veterans’ cemetery. The NCA has selected sites and will be moving forward to create five national, five urban, and eight rural veterans’ cemeteries.
The eight rural veterans’ cemeteries are a component of VA’s new Rural Initiative plan. These new burial grounds will serve veterans in the areas of Fargo, N.D.; Rhinelander, Wis.; Cheyenne, Wyo.; Laurel, Mont.; Idaho Falls, Idaho; Cedar City, Utah; Calais, Maine; and Elko, Nev. This one initiative will allow 136,000 veterans and their dependents to access burial services that were previously unavailable.
In addition to new cemeteries, the NCA has moved forward with numerous green initiatives to maximize their efforts to reserve resources. Memorial walls have been constructed at many sites to conserve land for ground interments. In Massachusetts, wind turbines have been installed to provide power to the burial site. These turbines cover 95 percent of the utility costs for the cemetery, thereby allowing the NCA to focus resources on other projects.
The NCA is currently working on a memorial affairs redesign. They intended to replace their current IT system and add new features that will aid cemetery visitors. They hope to include maps of cemeteries and grave site locators that will be available to smartphone users. These features will allow loved ones to easily navigate a veterans’ cemetery.
After the discovery of mismarked and unmarked graves in Arlington National Cemetery in 2011, the NCA has begun an audit to ensure that all headstones correspond with the correct grave. In phase one of this process, the NCA specifically targeted areas where headstones were removed for realignment to prevent sinking. Out of the 1.6 million burial plots reviewed during this phase, the NCA found 243 errors. Presently conducting phase two, the NCA is checking every discrepancy reported by cemetery directors. This phase will be completed in December 2012.
To prevent graves from being mismarked, the NCA has instituted new policies, including preventing the headstone from leaving the grave during a realignment process. Instead of being placed on a palate with other headstones, the marker will be placed on top of the grave, ensuring it does not move from the cemetery. Also, new markers will be placed on top of a concrete foundation. This new foundation decreases the likelihood of markers sinking into the ground, thereby eliminating the need for realignment.
Today, the NCA employs more veterans than any other government agency, more than 75 percent of its workforce, and continues to expand training and employment opportunities for veterans. Starting on Oct. 22, 2012, a group of 30 homeless veterans will begin a yearlong internship and upon completion will be offered a position as a cemetery caretaker. The individuals will begin their training in St. Louis for a week, and then finish the instruction at a local cemetery. The NCA’s goal is to train all caretakers and standardize practices throughout the NCA.
The NCA is expanding outreach in the coming year to rural communities who may not have access to a national or state veterans’ cemetery. By utilizing an outreach van, the NCA will provide information on memorial benefits at veteran-focused conventions and community events. The NCA is also speaking with specific veteran communities who have special burial needs, such as Native American veterans. This will enable the NCA to address all burial needs and better serve veterans and their families.
(Photos: Top: National Cemetery Administration logo. Middle: Deputy Under Secretary for Field Programs Glenn Powers and Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs Ronald Walters talk with AMVETS Executive Director Stewart Hickey and AMVETS National Legislative Director Diane Zumatto)