Hearing Transcript on Is the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Cemetery Construction Policy Meeting the Needs of Today's Veterans and their Families?
IS THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS CEMETERY CONSTRUCTION POLICY MEETING THE NEEDS OF TODAY'S VETERANS AND THEIR FAMILIES?
SUBCOMMITTEE ON DISABILITY ASSISTANCE AND MEMORIAL AFFAIRS
COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
ONE HUNDRED TENTH CONGRESS
MAY 2, 2008
SERIAL No. 110-85
Printed for the use of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs
U.S. GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE
For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office
COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
CORRINE BROWN, Florida
STEVE BUYER, Indiana, Ranking
Malcom A. Shorter, Staff Director
SUBCOMMITTEE ON DISABILITY ASSISTANCE AND MEMORIAL AFFAIRS
Pursuant to clause 2(e)(4) of Rule XI of the Rules of the House, public hearing records of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs are also published in electronic form. The printed hearing record remains the official version. Because electronic submissions are used to prepare both printed and electronic versions of the hearing record, the process of converting between various electronic formats may introduce unintentional errors or omissions. Such occurrences are inherent in the current publication process and should diminish as the process is further refined.
C O N T E N T S
May 2, 2008
Is the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Cemetery Construction Policy Meeting the Needs of Today's Veterans and Their Families?
American Legion, Tim Grabin, Department Commander, Department of Colorado
Prepared statement of Mr. Grabin
Colorado Military Survivors, Colorado Springs, CO, Milly Briseno, Co-Founder
Prepared statement of Ms. Briseno
Colorado State Board of Veterans Affairs, C. Douglas Sterner, Past Chairman
Prepared statement of Mr. Sterner
El Paso County, CO, Veteran and Military Affairs, Bud Sailar, Director
Prepared statement of Mr. Sailar
Gold Star Wives of America, Linda Lee-Witt, Member, Peterson AFB, Colorado Springs, CO
Prepared statement of Ms. Lee-Witt
Pikes Peak Veterans Cemetery Committee, Colorado Springs, CO, Victor M. Fernandez, Member
Prepared statement of Mr. Fernandez
Pueblo County Board of Commissioners, Hon. Jeff Chostner, Colonel, USAF (Ret.), Commissioner, Pueblo, CO
Prepared statement of Commissioner Chostner
SUBMISSION FOR THE RECORD
Udall, Hon. Mark, a Representative in Congress from the State of Colorado, statement
MATERIAL SUBMITTED FOR THE RECORD
Hon. William F. Tuerk, Under Secretary of Memorial Affairs, National Cemetery Administration, to Hon. John T. Salazar, U.S. House of Representatives, letter dated July 11, 2008, providing follow-up information regarding VA authority to accept, as a gift, funds for the construction for a national cemetery
IS THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS CEMETERY CONSTRUCTION POLICY MEETING THE NEEDS OF TODAY'S VETERANS AND THEIR FAMILIES?
Friday, May 2, 2008
U. S. House of Representatives,
Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs,
Committee on Veterans' Affairs,
The Subcommittee met, pursuant to notice, at 12:00 p.m., in the Board Room, Academy School District 20 Headquarters, 1110 Chapel Hills Drive, Colorado Springs, Colorado, Hon. John J. Hall [Chairman of the Subcommittee] presiding.
Present: Representatives Hall, Lamborn, and Salazar.
Mr. HALL. Good afternoon. Thank you for your patience. The Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, hearing on "Is the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Cemetery Construction Policy Meeting the Needs of Today's Veterans and Their Families," will now come to order.
I would ask everyone to please rise for the Pledge of Allegiance.
[Pledge of Allegiance.]
Thank you all for coming today. I'm sorry my plane was a little bit delayed, but it's wonderful to be here in Representative Doug Lamborn's district. And we're fortunate to also have Representative Salazar joining us. Without objection, he's been asked to join us on the dais.
The title you've just heard, a long but necessary one, "Is the VA Cemetery Construction Policy Meeting the Needs of Today's Veterans and Their Families," a topic of particular importance to this region and throughout the country.
First a couple of preliminaries. I mentioned Congressman John Salazar, from the 3rd District of Colorado and also a Member of the Committee, who is, by unanimous consent, joining us on the dais. Without objection, so ordered.
And I would also like to recognize Scott Prestige from the office of Congressman Mark Udall from the 2nd District of Colorado, who is in the audience and has a statement, which I will ask, without objection, if we can enter that into the record also.
[The statement of Congressman Udall appears in the Appendix.]
So it's a pleasure to be here with all of you and to bring the Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee out into the country and actually see people and have them see and speak to us and see how we operate.
Congressman Lamborn was kind enough to come to the 19th District of New York, where I live, the home of the military academy of West Point and which I am proud to represent. I'm proud and honored also to be in Air Force country, especially since it's not football season. We'll be working on that.
I'm also pleased to know that H.R. 1660, a bill that passed in the House sponsored by Congressman Salazar—that you are also a lead co-sponsor.
Mr. LAMBORN. Yes, I am.
Mr. HALL. Both of you sponsored or supported legislation to build a national cemetery in the southern Colorado region, which passed the full House unanimously and now awaits action from the Senate. Mr. Salazar, I know that you, and Ranking Member Lamborn, as well as the rest of the Colorado delegation, have worked on the VA's national cemetery policy concerns in your region on a bipartisan basis. I'm glad we're able to bring this hearing to your State where these issues are front and center.
I also would, parenthetically, tell you that I'm proud that this Subcommittee, and the full VA Committee are, if the not the most, certainly among the most bipartisan in the House of Representatives and in the Congress. We occasionally differ on how to pay for things, but we almost always agree on what needs to be done, and that is to take care of America's veterans.
Last preliminaries: In accordance with Committee rules, I ask all cell phones and pagers to be turned off, including mine, as we have a lot of business to conduct in a short period of time and we want to have as few interruptions as possible.
Also, out of respect for our witnesses, I ask for the audience to please refrain from speaking out of order. This is not—I had to tell the folks in my district, too—this is not actually a public hearing. This is a Congressional hearing. We have panels of witnesses scheduled that will take up the time allotted. But I'm sure you can get a few words in with us individually on our way out after the hearing is over if you need to do that.
My thanks to the witnesses for coming today to appear before the Subcommittee. The issues, I know, though pertinent to the cemetery policy at the VA, are of the utmost importance to you, and I look forward to receiving your testimonies.
On a personal note, it is a special privilege for me as Chair of the Subcommittee to conduct it in my Ranking Member's district. Mr. Doug Lamborn, it's been an honor serving with him. Moreover, it's an honor for me to be able to address the issues facing veterans in or nearby their homes.
Although my district, the 19th of New York, is thousands of miles away in the Hudson Valley, beautiful in a different way than the beauty that you see every day here, we share a lot of similarities. We both have one of your Nation's fine military academies, West Point and the Air Force Academy. Also, our district houses many prominent military installations. Both places are ones where a high percentage of our Nation's veterans call home and return after their service to live most of or sometimes all of their lives.
My mother-in-law still goes to the commissary, as her husband is buried at West Point. So I understand the magnetism that these areas hold for those who graduate from these institutions or serve in these communities. I understand also that southern Colorado is home to one of the largest concentrations of World War II and Vietnam veterans in our country.
Since their genesis on July 17, 1862, national cemeteries have served as the hallowed resting place for our Nation's veterans and their loved ones. Currently, VA operates 125 national cemeteries in 39 States and Puerto Rico and maintains over 2.8 million grave sites. The annual number of burials is on the uprise, with just 36,000 in 1973, up to over 100,200 in 2006. Veterans who have served in this country's armed services are buried in cemeteries operated by the States, the VA, the Department of Interior, Arlington National Cemetery and American Battle Monuments Commission. VA also provides grants to over 69 State veteran cemeteries under its National Cemetery Administration's State Cemetery Grants Program that operates in 35 States, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
We are here today to examine the adequacy of VA's current policy, which entails locating national cemeteries in areas with a large concentration of unserved veterans, and providing reasonable access to a burial option in the national or State veterans cemetery within 75 miles of their residence. As such, VA concludes that new national cemeteries will be established in areas with an unserved veteran population threshold of 170,000 within a 75-mile radius. Under this policy, 83 percent of all veterans are served, the converse of which means that there are at least 17 percent or nearly 2 million veterans and their families who are underserved by this policy.
The Subcommittee also addressed the VA's national cemetery policy issues during a hearing held on May 8, 2007, wherein I expressed concerns of whether this policy was adequate enough to address both rural and urban locations. Those concerns still stand. I also think it's critical that VA makes sure that there's plenty of opportunity for public input during any new cemetery policy or location selection process.
I know that VA is currently conducting its own study of these criteria and has plans to move the percentage of veterans served to 90 percent by fiscal year 2010. I look forward to hearing more about these plans during your testimony.
In the way of follow-up to last year's hearing, I would like to be updated on the current status of the VA's national shrine commitment. Lastly, the Subcommittee has been apprised of a situation at Greenwood Island, the old Camp Jefferson Davis site and the soldiers' asylum home in Pascagoula, Mississippi, where veterans of the Mexican-American War are buried but whose resting places are being eroded by nature and construction. It is reported that some of the coffins and/or bodies have become disinterred and have been found by local fishermen. Whereas I appreciate the National Cemetery Administration's (NCA's) response provided to staff, I would like to know the NCA implications of this situation, if any, and how we can remedy this grievous oversight.
I now recognize Ranking Member Lamborn for his opening statement.
[The statement of Chairman Hall appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. LAMBORN. Good afternoon. And I would like to personally thank you, Chairman Hall, and your staff for agreeing to hold this hearing. There is a lot of work involved with bringing Congress to southern Colorado, and I appreciate it.
It is an honor to participate in this important occasion. I remember fondly the field hearing this Subcommittee had on veterans disabilities in your Congressional district last year. It was a productive meeting, as this promises to be. I sure enjoyed and learned from the tour of West Point, which also is in your district.
I know you have a very tight schedule, but I hope your plans open up so that you can have that tour of the Air Force Academy I told you about, and I'd love to take you on before you have to go, but if your schedule permits.
I would also like to thank all of the witnesses for being here today. Their statements will be helpful, interesting, informative and deeply moving.
I want to thank my friend, Representative John Salazar for being here. I also want to thank everyone in the audience. You are interested in this issue, and you have come today. We also have students from Aspen Valley High School with us today.
I want to especially thank my friend, Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs, Bill Tuerk, for joining us here today to discuss the Department of Veterans Affairs policy for the location and construction of new national cemeteries.
This is truly a momentous occasion. There has never before been a field hearing in this Congressional district on this vital subject of a national veterans cemetery. Fortunately, in Under Secretary Tuerk, we have the highest-ranking official within the VA who works on this issue.
Mr. Chairman, property honoring a deceased veteran is one of our most sacred and solemn responsibilities. These patriots have earned a place of honor in our national shrines. Veterans and their families are due the tribute and thanks of a grateful Nation. We should ensure that the final resting place for those who have given so much is accessible to family members and loved ones. This way they can come and pay tribute to the service of those brave men and women who have borne the sacrifice in defense of liberty.
We are seeing increased demand on all of our national cemeteries, especially as members of the greatest generation, pass from our presence. VA estimates that interments in national cemeteries will rise from the current level of 2.8 million to 3.2 million by 2012.
VA also estimates that as early as 2016 or as late as 2020, Fort Logan National Cemetery will be at full capacity and they will be looking to construct a replacement cemetery.
Today, Mr. Chairman, we will hear very moving and eloquent testimony from Coloradans who are personally affected by the distance of the Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver from the Pikes Peak area.
I believe there is a better way to determine needs than simply drawing circles and a 75-mile radius around a national cemetery to determine where the most underserved veterans are located. There are many other factors that should be taken into account, including travel time to and from national cemeteries, access to public transportation in the area, weather conditions, climate restrictions, and other factors that may affect one part of the country, such as the front range of Colorado more than another.
In addition, VA needs to focus greater attention than ever on demographic trends to determine with increased accuracy where veterans are most likely to live in the future. It is my understanding that the 75-mile rule was created many years ago. We are in the 21st century now, and with the advent of technologies like GPS, it is very easy to determine driving distances and times.
For instance, by doing a simple Google search, I discovered that a veteran from Lake George, Colorado, which is about 60 miles as the crow flies from Fort Logan, must travel 105 miles by road, with a driving time of over 2 hours, not including poor weather or traffic. According to the 75-mile rule, this veteran from Lake George is considered served by Fort Logan. I would venture to say that he is underserved.
This example only points out a flaw within the 75-mile rule and does not take into account the tens of thousands of veterans who live beyond 75-mile radius here in southern Colorado. As this rule, in my opinion anyway, is arbitrary and outdated, I propose that the Department of Veterans Affairs determine a 21st century process for selecting national cemetery sites that takes into account factors in addition to veteran population and straight-line distance.
I would offer my services and those of my staff and even the many willing veterans in this district who have been working on this issue for over a decade now. I believe that with a little hard work we could fine-tune a process that would serve more veterans and hopefully the same or perhaps even a lower cost in VA's current system.
Since bureaucratic hurdles have made it hard for such a processed change to take place, my friend Representative Salazar, and I, have had to help alert VA to the glaring inequities associated with the current process.
Mr. Chairman, it is for that reason that I was pleased to work with you and Representative Salazar to pass H.R. 1660 with my amendment out of the VA Committee and out of the House last year. This bill would authorize the establishment of a national cemetery in southern Colorado, in El Paso County in particular, and would greatly benefit the veterans and their families in all of southern Colorado. H.R. 1660 represents a major step forward to the campaign to establish a national cemetery, and I urge our colleagues in the Senate to take this bill up as soon as possible.
And Representative Salazar, I'm going to ask you to talk once again with your brother, who as you all may know is one of the U.S. Senators from here in Colorado. I also hope that all of our witnesses understand that when this legislation is enacted, we must always work together to help the National Cemetery Administration within the VA find a suitable location for this cemetery, and that this would serve the highest number, therefore, of veterans and their families.
I want to thank everyone once again for being here today, and I'm looking forward to the testimony.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and I yield back.
[The statement of Congressman Lamborn appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Mr. Lamborn.
I would now recognize Congressman Salazar for an opening statement.
Mr. SALAZAR. I want to thank you, Mr. Chairman.
First of all, I think that most of you may know John Hall. He's a famous songwriter, with the band Orleans, and wrote the song, "You're Still The One" and "Dance With Me." We appreciate you coming to Colorado. What do you think about the snow here in the Springs?
Mr. HALL. I wish I would have brought my skis, and I wish I would have had time to use them.
Mr. SALAZAR. I want to thank both you and Ranking Member Lamborn for having this important hearing here in Colorado.
Let me just take a moment, briefly, to thank all of you in the audience who have served this country and your families. The great sacrifices that you've made is the reason that we have the greatest country in the world, in my opinion.
I had the opportunity to serve at the tail end of the Vietnam War. My father was a World War II veteran. My son served two tours right after 9/11. We come from a long line of veterans, and I know the sacrifices that your families have made. What we're about to do here is a monumental task that we have taken on. Mr. Lamborn, I appreciate your hard work. You've truly been a champion on veterans issues, as you have, Mr. Hall.
This legislation that we've been talking about was legislation that Congressman Hefley, Mr. Lamborn's predecessor, had worked on for nearly 15 years, on trying to create a southern Colorado cemetery. We got together earlier this year, Mr. Lamborn and I worked together on trying to provide language that would actually create what we call now the new southern Colorado veterans cemetery.
According to the Congressional Research Service, which is a non-partisan office that provides research and information to Members of Congress, there are over 150,000 veterans that are making southern Colorado their home.
The residents of southern Colorado have a long, long history of serving in the military. Until recently, Pueblo was America's only city that had four living recipients of the Medal of Honor. Congress realized 15 years ago, and recognized Pueblo, Colorado, America's "Home of Heroes."
During the Vietnam War, almost 10 percent of Colorado soldiers killed in action were from Pueblo. Southern Colorado veterans and their families have been awaiting for an accessible veterans cemetery for far too long. When they pass away, they deserve facilities that are close to their families. It is wrong to expect a family to have to travel hundreds of miles in some areas to find a final resting place for their loved ones, simply because the current regulations do not take rural areas into account.
I've had the opportunity to visit, one of the most beautiful cemeteries that I've ever seen in my life with Under Secretary Tuerk in Georgia. That's the way that we should honor those who have served us.
During the winter months in Colorado, especially in my district where most of it is mountains, the mountain passes are often closed. In fact, in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, just earlier today there was over six inches of snow. All too often, widows have to drive over 700 miles round trip from Cortez, Colorado, to Fort Logan to see their loved ones.
I was proud to be the author of H.R. 1660 along with Mr. Lamborn, which directs the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to establish a national cemetery for veterans in southern Colorado. This bill would do several things. It would place a veterans cemetery between Pueblo and Colorado Springs. Mr. Lamborn and I agreed during our discussions that, rightfully so, it should be in El Paso County because we have the largest number of military personnel.
This is not only an Air Force issue, Mr. Chairman. It is also an Army issue. We have Fort Carson right here in El Paso County, just on the south side of Colorado Springs. And I'm a little partial to the Army because I served in the U.S. Army.
The House of Representatives has shown strong support for our bill by adopting it in a unanimous voice vote on May 23, 2007. Veterans in our district, and veterans serving organizations agree that a cemetery is critical and that the need will continue to grow. We have information that Fort Logan will probably not be accepting more burials after about 10 years from now. We're getting fairly full there.
In a letter of support, the Military Order of the Purple Heart, wrote, "The defenders of our Nation's freedom and their families deserve much better. They deserve a national cemetery located in southern Colorado where they chose to live out their lives. We shouldn't punish those veterans for where they choose to live. The 150,000 veterans serving in Colorado served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Iraq conflicts. They chose to make southern Colorado their home. Our Nation should honor that service by providing them a final resting place."
It is not fair for our Nation to force a widow to drive from Alamosa over 500 miles round-trip or to drive from Cortez over 700 miles round-trip. We're placing a huge burden on the families with the added cost of the trip, and with the high price of fuel right now. National cemeteries are the final act of gratitude that we bestow upon those who served our Nation. They give families comfort and inspire future generations by preserving the memory of our heroes that are no longer with us.
I look forward to hearing from my colleagues and the experts here with us today, on the current regulations and how we can better improve them to serve more veterans, especially those in rural areas.
It is my understanding under the current regulations, that there would never be another cemetery built in a rural area, and actually in many States that are sparsely populated, western States such as Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado, because of sparse population.
With that, Mr. Chairman, I just wanted to thank you for having this hearing here today.
And I want to welcome our guests. I appreciate your being here to testify.
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Congressman Salazar.
I ask unanimous consent that the opening statement of Congressman Udall from the 2nd District of Colorado be accepted into the record. Without objection, so ordered.
Welcome to our panelists. Before we move to the first panel, I wanted to—in case you're curious who you're looking at, there are staff who I also want to thank from both sides of the aisle here on the dais. We have majority Staff Director and Counsel of the Subcommittee, Kimberly Ross, and Minority Staff, Jon Clark. Thank you to our stenographers and recordkeepers, without which this would not be an official hearing.
All panelists, I would like to remind you that your complete written statements have been made a part of the hearing record. So please limit your remarks so that we may have sufficient time to follow up with questions, once everyone has had the opportunity to provide testimony.
Joining us on our first panel is Linda Lee-Witt, President of the Gold Star Widows, and Milly Briseno, an Iraq war widow.
Thank you and welcome to the table, please.
Excuse me—Past Secretary of Gold Star Widows.
Ms. LEE-WITT. I still have to correct you, Mr. Chairman. I am a Member of the Gold Star Wives of America, and I am a Past Secretary for the local chapter.
Mr. HALL. Past Secretary of the local chapter and Member of the Gold Star Wives of America. Thank you. It's an honor to have you before us today. And, Ms. Lee-Witt, you are now recognized for five minutes. Speak into the microphone, and make sure it's turned on, please.
STATEMENTS OF LINDA LEE-WITT, PETERSON AFB, COLORADO SPRINGS, CO, MEMBER, GOLD STAR WIVES OF AMERICA; AND MILLY BRISENO, CO-FOUNDER, COLORADO MILITARY SURVIVORS, COLORADO SPRINGS, CO (IRAQ WAR WIDOW)
Ms. LEE-WITT. Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman, distinguished Member of the Committee. I want to thank you for the opportunity to be here today. My name is Linda Lee-Witt. I am a member of the Gold Star Wives of America and the Administrative Officer of the Retiree Activities Office of Southern Colorado, in the 21st space wing, Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado Springs. My testimony, however, today will be my story as a widow of a veteran.
My husband, Robert, grew up in a military family. His father served during World War II and retired as a major from the Army. As a child, Bob lived and went to school all over the world. Like his father, he dedicated his whole career to the United States Government. He served with the United States Air Force and in Vietnam. After retiring from the Air Force in 1978, he continued to serve his country in civil service, in safety engineering at Fort Carson here in Colorado Springs, where he deployed with the troops wherever they went.
His passion for the safety of the young soldiers was deep, and he identified with what they and their families faced every day.
He died from a service-connected cancer on November 3, 2004, in our home. Due to the weather conditions, which you all saw yesterday. We had had a blizzard early in November, and our driveway has a steep incline. Due to that, when the mortuary van came, they couldn't get up the driveway to take my husband's body down to the van, and our son had to put his father's body in a four-wheel drive to take down to the mortuary van.
I wanted my husband to be buried with the full honor and respect that he so deserved, and for months I kept his ashes, not wanting them in a civilian cemetery. Eventually, to my regret now, I chose to have his remains buried at the National Veterans Cemetery in Nashville, Tennessee. His parents are buried there. All of my children are here. My grandchildren are here. Had there been an appropriate cemetery in El Paso County, without question I would have had his remains here.
We weren't a part of the military community at that time. It was civil service, and he'd been retired from civil service. So I had really never heard of Fort Logan, and it sounds maybe a little bit strange, but I thought Fort Logan was a town somewhere. I didn't know about Fort Logan being a military cemetery, a veterans cemetery. Together as a family, probably we will never be able to coordinate a trip together to Tennessee to visit my husband's grave.
I would love for my grandchildren to see how this country honors our veterans, when they pass. I'd love for them to see the hundreds of headstones, their grandfather's among them, and know the freedoms and the rights that they have today are because of the men and women like their grandfather who were willing to give their lives for those freedoms.
Working with the wives of servicemembers in the World War II and Vietnam era, they express how hard it is to make the trip to Denver. Some of them with their advanced age, many are unable or afraid to drive themselves and they have to ask someone to take them. Talking with young widows of today's war, the hardship for them is to take the whole day with young children and visit their husband's graves.
The logistics involved getting to Fort Logan are trying, and many families have a hard time finding Fort Logan, from what I understand. Because of the sporadic unpredictable climate here in El Paso County, from late spring to fall, I-25 is often impassable. Monument Hill, just north of town, can be treacherous.
For the widow, visiting the grave site is one of the most important elements in the grieving process. And those first months, the loss and the feeling of aloneness is almost like fear. Visiting the grave is a way for us—some of us to connect to our spouse. Eventually, an acceptance of the fact that they're no longer here. For the children, it's seeing that their parent was given a place of honor, a resting place of honor.
As with my husband, many of our servicemen and women and their families opt to stay and live in Colorado Springs after their military service. We have a huge military presence in Colorado Springs and it's rapidly growing, yet we have no national veterans cemetery to accommodate them when they're put to rest. El Paso County's need for a national cemetery is vital to the health and well-being of our widows, the dependents and our community.
It's my hope that based on the hardships endured by the military widows and families in the southern Colorado area and the large military presence here, that the VA would grant El Paso County a national veterans cemetery.
Congressman Lamborn, I'd like to thank you for arranging this today, and thank you, too, to your staff for the support you give the military.
[The statement of Ms. Lee-Witt appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Ms. Lee-Witt.
Ms. Briseno, you are now recognized for your opening statement.
Ms. BRISENO. Thank you so much for taking the time out to hear about our experiences as younger widows.
At the height of my husband's 17-year Army career and in the 13th year of our marriage, our life came to screeching halt. An unexpected massive stoke at the age of 35 took his vibrant life from this temporary home and left my three children and I reeling as we struggled for direction and purpose in this completely unfamiliar world of loss. My husband's death was not combat-related, but from natural causes.
My husband's untimely death came just 1 month after moving to Fort Carson. As a young family full of promise and a bright future, we never thought to discuss burial plans. I really struggled to know how to honor his life as a dedicated soldier, whose career in the Army Medical Specialist Corp demonstrated his commitment and the restoration and preservation of life.
To honor him and affirm my family's identity as a military family, we chose to bury my husband at a national cemetery. We chose Fort Logan. Fort Logan was the closest one to our home and my in-laws' home. It has been difficult to visit his grave site, for many reasons. We really do want to visit more. My family and my in-laws reside in Colorado Springs, near Fort Carson. The travel distance to such a congested metropolitan area poses great inconveniences from my young family. At the time of my husband's death, my children were 9, 5, and 2-1/2 years old. A trip to Fort Logan involves an entire day's plans. It is quite challenging at times for the children.
With the weather here in Colorado, we mainly make it to Fort Logan, at the most, two times per year. We miss most of our significant special occasions, such as birthdays, anniversaries and other holidays, because they occur in the fall and winter seasons. As a family, we try to set a goal to get to Fort Logan, at least for Memorial Day. The effects of limited visits to Fort Carson have had an impact in these first three years of grief, not only for my immediate family, but also for my mother and father-in-law, my husband's sisters and their families who reside in Colorado Springs.
Our family has had less participation in commemorative events, which occur at Fort Logan. We have less opportunities to connect with the military's sensitive and supportive community, which can be found among the visitors at Fort Logan. My family may miss out on one way to continually affirm their military identity. And personally, I myself have struggled with having less access to an acceptable place to face the reality of grief and process those complicated emotions.
It is difficult to deal with grief as a younger widow with young children. Through my involvement with Colorado military survivors, I have found that a new generation of widows are emerging. This new group of widows faces additional struggles in dealing with grief because we do not fit the common stereotype. I attend a widows' support group at Fort Carson, which averages from 5 to 8 participants, and we meet twice a month.
Up until recently, I was the oldest one by at least a decade. We are finding that we must find a safe place to face our grief, one in which we have opportunities to express our emotions of loss and pain. That is why we gather together, and that is why I wish we were closer to Fort Logan. The small plot of land that I stake claim to in Denver holds a vital place in my ability to process my grief. My husband's headstone is an immovable reminder that forces me to face the heartache involved in the unexpected ending of his earthly story.
His headstone solemnly stands among thousands of its kind at Fort Logan. To most, these pale stones represent so much pain and suffering. But to me, they each hold a story. They are just like a sea of bookends. The dates engraved on my husband's headstone tell the beginning and the finale of his life. His headstone is a fixed mark that causes me to focus on the finale, and the heartache.
A cemetery is an acceptable place in our society to express one's grief. Young widows find very few acceptable places to deal with their loss. With now almost three years of learning in the obstacle course of grief, I realize the necessity of exercising this heartache. It has taken me a long time to come to the understanding that heartache is strength training. It helps transform the weakness of my faith into a powerful conditioned response to my loss. Once only heartache, pierced through with fear, now has become thanksgiving that appreciates the work of sorrow.
Military loss is more complex. It is a traumatic loss, especially for young families that face this sudden tragedy. Our society still puts expectations on grief recovery. Because of the traumatic grief that military families endure, their bereavement is prolonged and can be more difficult. It is a life-long process to learn to move forward with one's grief. As an organization, Colorado military survivors strives to unite survivors in their loss, and help them find strength in a community well acquainted with sorrow.
My initial connection with one of my dear friends now, also a young widow with two young children, was made at Fort Logan when I discovered that her husband was buried just two rows away from mine. Together we face each day encouraging each other to press on, to remember to have faith in God, and to grow through our grief in order to help one another.
If we were able to be closer to a place that would help us face these challenges with greater strength, we could be more effective in encouraging a new generation of grieving families. We could accomplish this by affirming their value and assuring them of the honored place of appreciation that their loved ones' treasured stories hold in our community.
[The statement of Ms. Briseno appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Ms. Briseno and Ms. Lee-Witt.
You each have a bottle of water in front of you that you may open and drink if you'd like, courtesy of the Subcommittee. I will just ask a couple questions, and then try and leave more time for our Colorado representatives to ask theirs.
Ms. Lee-Witt, first, let me express my sympathy to you and also Ms. Briseno, and my thanks for your gift to our country and for your loved ones, your husband's gift to our country, and blessings on you and them. Also thank you for coming here and for having the fortitude to come and tell us your story.
I know the national cemetery policy is complicated, and that the problems that you described exist in many locations, including my home State of New York. But, Ms. Lee-Witt, can you tell me more about what you and your organization have done to bring a national cemetery to Colorado, and the response to those efforts? Please use the microphone.
Ms. LEE-WITT. As far as Gold Star Wives, Rose Lee is a gold star wife, she is on this very Committee in DC. Locally, here, we don't really have a group that meets. We donate to the NALP organization. It's a non-profit organization. The widows who are involved in the government in Washington, D.C., really do a lot there and testify on behalf of military widows. I think Rose Lee was just in Florida for this very—this very discussion on the cemeteries. So that's what the Gold Star Wives do.
As far as what I do with the Retired Activities Office, I try to help widows and retirees. I'm in contact with them and help direct them to the people that they need to meet to get what they should have in benefits and support. I didn't know a lot of this, of course, again, until after my husband died. So Gold Star Wives is active in this very thing, right here in the Springs, and at the base, we help the retirees.
Mr. HALL. Well, thank you. And of course, thanks for the work that the Gold Star Wives do. We see Ms. Lee very frequently in Washington.
Ms. Briseno, you mentioned in your testimony the personal struggle of having to travel long distances to visit your loved one, and I want to thank you for sharing a rather poetic testimony with us, of how you've had to endure this journey and this tremendous inconvenience. It's a journey, not only a physical one, but an emotional and spiritual one as well.
In terms of the future, can you describe how an additional cemetery in the region would assist others who may face the same issues?
Ms. BRISENO. Well, as an organization, Colorado Military Survivors, is a new non-profit here in Colorado Springs. We have encountered many new surviving families in this area. And our hope is to advocate for those that need to be closer in order to process their grief. And I think my experience with widows and family members in this area show that we're—we're coming to the understanding that it's important to be closer, to face the challenges, especially as younger widows.
We have additional challenges, with the complications of losing our loved one, that was active duty especially. I think that families, we can encourage families and support them in their grieving process and to continue to move on and show how much we appreciate what they've done by giving them access to a place that they can move forward in their grief.
Mr. HALL. Thank you very much.
Mr. Lamborn, you're now recognized for questions.
Mr. LAMBORN. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
And thank you both for your eloquent and moving testimony.
Ms. Briseno, you mentioned that your family tries to go to Fort Logan at least on Memorial Day, if not more often. Can you ever think of examples with yourself, or other people that you worked with through the Military Survivors Organization that you're working so much with, where trips have had to be postponed or cancelled because of this changeable weather?
The weather we have here today and yesterday is a perfect example of how our volatile weather can change plans.
Ms. BRISENO. Well, personally, my husband died on September 28, 2005. Our 14th wedding anniversary was November 30th. I was bound and determined, because it takes a while to get the permanent headstone up, I had gotten word that his headstone had been placed. So I had not visited Fort Logan since his internment on the 28th of September, and that—the day before, it was predicted that there was going to be snow.
My family and I were living with my in-laws. And my mother-in-law was terrified that I was going to try and make it up there the next day, because I was bound and determined to visit his grave on our anniversary. And due to the weather, and also a little minor accident with my daughter at school on the day of our anniversary, I decided it was probably not a good day to go. And my mother-in-law was quite relieved that I did not try and trek up there by myself. I insisted on going by myself, because it was that personal time that you need and don't want to show it in front of everybody.
And I think that that—I decided not to go that day. So I had to decide other ways to commemorate the day, without going to his grave site. So that postponed my first visit.
Mr. LAMBORN. Thank you.
And for either one of you, you talked about a mother with small children. On the other end of the scale, someone, a widow or widower for that matter who is elderly, do you know of special needs there that might make it difficult to go from this part of the State to Fort Logan.
Ms. LEE-WITT. Well, I deal with a lot of the older widows, Vietnam and World War II era. And many of them are in walkers. They are afraid to drive in a metropolitan area. They hate going over Monument Hill. We have a lot of accidents on Monument Hill. A lot of them are too sick to drive or they're too afraid to drive anywhere but their little neighborhoods.
So for them, yes, they have to depend on someone else if they're going to go. I hate to—I'm not that old, but I hate to drive in Denver too. So, yes, that's a big issue with the older widows, and a lot of them have their spouses at Fort Logan.
Mr. LAMBORN. Thank you both.
Mr. HALL. Thanks, Mr. Lamborn.
Mr. SALAZAR. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
That was very moving testimony, and my heart goes out to you and your families.
The legislation that we currently have in the House, actually, is stuck in the Senate, does several things.
First of all, it establishes a national cemetery in the southern Colorado region, and also requires the Secretary to establish a national cemetery in this county, in El Paso County. It requires the Secretary to consult with State and local officials as to the site selection, and it requires a Secretary to consult with government officials in the site selection. It authorizes the Secretary to accept the gift of an appropriate parcel of real estate to be used for the cemetery, and it requires the Secretary to submit to Congress a report on the establishment of the cemetery.
It requires the Secretary to add the cemetery to the current list of priority projects. As you know, there are six cemeteries on the priority list. This will not circumvent any of those. It falls in line, it would be number seven. Under Secretary Tuerk, I hope, he agrees with that.
It does not allow the cemetery to take priority over any of these current projects. Do you have any objections to any of these proposals, and would you have any objections if the cemetery was selected closer to the Pueblo line, as it might be able to serve more veterans and would cover a greater geographical area that would serve veterans in southeast and southwest Colorado. Would either one of you or both of you address that?
Ms. LEE-WITT. Since Fort Carson is the—where they're expanding so much, the southern part of El Paso County would be fine with me, and between Pueblo and the Springs, I think would be appropriate. I think if it's in Pueblo or south of there, it's going to still be just as hard for the El Paso County widows and families.
Mr. SALAZAR. This does designate that El Paso County will be the home.
Ms. LEE-WITT. Okay.
Mr. SALAZAR. We wanted to try to move it closer to the Pueblo County line, still in the El Paso County so that it would be able to serve more veterans, and I think that maybe we could find an appropriate gift of land in that area.
Ms. LEE-WITT. I wouldn't have any objection to that, as long as it's not going over Monument Hill or having to be the—
Mr. SALAZAR. It's warmer down south.
Ms. BRISENO. I think traveling aspect, that's probably the main concern, is that it would be accessible, even if the weather was a bit rough, just because—and then being less congested. It was hard to find Fort Logan the first time I went, and I think it would be easier for families that have even more complications in travelling, any families of any age, because it would be more accessible, and probably a calmer, quieter place for one to face their grief.
Mr. SALAZAR. Would either one of you possibly think of disinterring the remains of your loved ones, and if we had an actual cemetery close by, bring the remains to this area?
Ms. LEE-WITT. I would definitely consider that for my family.
Ms. BRISENO. When I talked with my in-laws, my father and mother-in-law, my sister-in-laws, even with my children, my oldest one being 12, that was everybody's first question, is whether we would do that. And I think for my in-laws, because of being parents and facing additional health issues and concerns, travel is hard for them. And we know several families in the Pueblo area of parents that, due to their age, it makes it difficult. And so that was the concern of my in-laws was if they would—if that would be a possibility for our family.
Mr. SALAZAR. Thank you both very much. Thank you for your sacrifice.
Ms. LEE-WITT. I'd like to add to that too. I did say that all my children and grandchildren are here now, and because my husband's body is in Tennessee, that also is where I will be buried. And that would be a hardship, at that point, for all of my family. So I would definitely consider that.
Mr. SALAZAR. Thank you.
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Ms. Lee-Witt and Ms. Briseno. And having spent a bit of my life making music in Tennessee, I can tell you that Nashville is a wonderful town. I would encourage you, if circumstances allow, to make the trip. Thanks again for your testimony, and you're now excused.
We will call our second panel: Mr. Victor Fernandez, Co-Founder of the Pikes Peak Veterans Cemetery Committee; Mr. Bud Sailar, Director of El Paso County Board of Veterans; Mr. C. Douglas Sterner, Former Chairman of the Colorado State Board of Veterans Affairs; and Mr. Jeff Chostner, Pueblo County Commissioner; and Tim Grabin, Department Commander of the American Legion.
As before, your written statements are in the record. So feel free to confine yourselves to 5 minutes. The yellow light means 4 minutes, and the red light means 5.
So, Mr. Fernandez, you are now recognized.
STATEMENTS OF VICTOR M. FERNANDEZ, MEMBER, PIKES PEAK VETERANS CEMETERY COMMITTEE, COLORADO SPRINGS, CO; BUD SAILAR, DIRECTOR, EL PASO COUNTY, CO, VETERAN AND MILITARY AFFAIRS; TIM GRABIN, DEPARTMENT COMMANDER, DEPARTMENT OF COLORADO, AMERICAN LEGION; C. DOUGLAS STERNER, PAST CHAIRMAN, COLORADO STATE BOARD OF VETERANS AFFAIRS; AND HON. JEFF CHOSTNER, COLONEL, USAF (RET.), COMMISSIONER, PUEBLO COUNTY BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS, PUEBLO, CO
Mr. FERNANDEZ. Good afternoon. I'm Vic Fernandez, and I'm West Point Class of 1959, and I was born in Trinidad, Colorado, where my World War II veteran father was interred—or is interred. I am a member of the Pikes Peak Veterans Cemetery Committee. Thank you very much for coming to Colorado to hear our message.
I'll cover three issues. First, why we need a new national veterans cemetery in Colorado. Second, why it should be established in the Pikes Peak region. And third, what we have done to assure that it is established here.
Regarding the first issue, Fort Logan in Denver, the State's major national veterans cemetery is expected to reach capacity about 2020. Fort Logan National Cemetery is landlocked in a residential area of Denver and cannot be expanded. Because of the size, geography, and weather patterns of the State of Colorado, the State's other small, remotely located cemeteries do not offer reasonable service to Denver or the Pikes Peak region. Those are reasons why it should be in the Pikes Peak region, and that's all southern Colorado.
First, the large veteran population of the Pikes Peak region has not been properly served by Fort Logan. Fort Logan is located in a difficult to find residential section of a major metropolitan area, with poor access from interstate and/or other highways. This has resulted in surviving spouses and families from southern Colorado making the trip to visit the loved one, but failing to find the cemetery.
Second, in winter, it is especially difficult to get to Denver over the topography of Monument Hill and through the weather patterns of what we call the Palmer Divide. Those topographic and weather pattern's hindrances make the Veterans Administration's internal 75-mile rule a useless tool in the State of Colorado, resulting in unsatisfactory service to veterans and their families in southern Colorado.
Third, the Pikes Peak region, with its rapidly growing six military installations is producing veterans at a much faster rate than the remainder of the State of Colorado. Many local military complete their service and remain in this area. Additionally, hundreds of our local military have given their lives during the global war on terror, and were buried in our local cemeteries, these active duty Americans need to be counted and properly served by a local national veterans cemetery.
And finally, the service life of Fort Logan can be lengthened for the veterans of Denver in the northern—in northern Colorado if the Pikes Peak cemetery is established and open soon.
So what have we done to assure that a national cemetery is established in the Pikes Peak region? My colleagues and I have worked for the establishment of this cemetery for over 10 years. Politically, we have solicited and received the backing of past, as was mentioned, and present Member of Congress. We have the backing of all of the Colorado contingent in the Congress of the United States. We have the backing of county commissioners and city councils from several counties and cities in southern Colorado, including Pueblo and Colorado Springs. We are supported by all of the veterans organizations in the surrounding counties, and the United Veterans Council of Colorado, committee of Colorado.
We have made several contacts with and have carried on letter-writing campaigns to the Secretaries of Veterans Affairs for over these past 10 years. To date, we do not consider any of the responses to have been satisfactory.
We studied the VA regulations. We performed due diligence studies. We have written a comprehensive plan, and that plan is entitled, "A National Veterans Cemetery for the Pikes Peak Region." This is that plan.
I will give a copy of this to each of you. The plan contains color maps, the photos of 10 most viable low and no-cost undeveloped sites between Colorado Springs and Pueblo, and a matrix that we use to rank these 10 sites.
In conclusion, in order to provide sufficient burial space for Colorado's veterans in the future, and to fairly meet the needs of southern Colorado's veterans, plans for Pikes Peak Veterans Cemetery must get under way immediately, and we are prepared to help.
[The statement of Mr. Fernandez appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you, sir. And, without objection, I will ask that the report you're giving us be entered into the record of this hearing.
[The report entitled, "A National Veterans Cemetery for the Pikes Peak Region," appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Mr. Sailar?
Mr. SAILAR. Good afternoon, Congressman. My name is Bud Sailar, and I am the director of El Paso County Veteran Military Affairs Office. I thank you for the opportunity to testify and present the views of our local veterans and their concerns. Like many, we consider the national cemeteries as memorials to veterans who preserved our freedom.
The future veteran demographics of Colorado will show that the Pikes Peak region, with its military installations, are producing veterans at a much faster rate than the remainder of Colorado. Fort Carson, which is the most popular station of choice, is alone on track to go to a population of over 30,000 soldiers, not counting their spouses. And when many, if not most of these local military complete their service, they remain in the area, which further accelerates the growth of the veteran population here. We also find that a large number of military, who were once stationed here, return here after military retirement. In short, our veteran population is growing at a much faster rate than the remainder of Colorado.
I myself am a native of Pennsylvania. And when I completed my service at the Air Force Academy, I chose to stay here. And my family's here, and I've had 26 years living in this area.
Additionally, we find that it is interesting and very disappointing that