Hearing Transcript on Veterans Cemeteries: Honoring Those Who Served.
VETERANS CEMETERIES: HONORING THOSE WHO SERVED
SUBCOMMITTEE ON DISABILITY ASSISTANCE AND MEMORIAL AFFAIRS
COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
ONE HUNDRED TENTH CONGRESS
MAY 8, 2007
Printed for the use of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs
SERIAL No. 110-19
U.S. GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE
For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office
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 8, 2007
Veterans Cemeteries: Honoring Those Who Served
U.S. Department of Defense, Department of the Army, John C. Metzler, Jr., Superintendent, Arlington National Cemetery, also on behalf of the Soldiers' and Airmen's Home National Cemeteries
Prepared statement of Mr. Metzler
U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Fred Boyles, Superintendent, Andersonville National Historic Site and Cemetery
Prepared statement of Mr. Boyles
American Battle Monuments Commission, Brigadier General John W. Nicholson, USA (Ret.), Secretary
Prepared statement of General Nicholson
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Hon. William F. Turek, Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs, National Cemetery Administration
Prepared statement of Secretary Turek
American Veterans (AMVETS), Kimo S. Hollingsworth, National Legislative Director
Prepared statement of Mr. Hollingsworth
National Funeral Directors Association, Lesley Witter, Director of Political Affairs
Prepared statement of Ms. Witter
National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs, Colonel George S. Webb, USA (Ret.), Chairman, Memorial Affairs Committee, and Executive Director, Kansas Commission on Veterans' Affairs
Prepared statement of Colonel Webb
MATERIAL SUBMITTED FOR THE RECORD
Post Hearing Questions for the Record:
Follow-up Letter to the Committee, dated May 17, 2007, from Lesley Witter, Director of Political Affairs, National Funeral Directors Association, in response to questions asked by Congressmen Bilirakis and Hare
VETERANS CEMETERIES: HONORING THOSE WHO SERVED
Tuesday, May 8, 2007
U. S. House of Representatives,
Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs,
Committee on Veterans' Affairs,
The Subcommittee met, pursuant to notice, at 2:21 p.m., in Room 334, Cannon House Office Building, Hon. John Hall [Chairman of the Subcommittee] presiding.
Present: Representatives Hall, Hare, Berkley, Lamborn, Bilirakis.
Mr. HALL. The Subcommittee will proceed with the hearing on Veterans' Cemeteries: Honoring Those Who Served.
And I would ask our witnesses in panel one, John Metzler, Superintendent of the Arlington National Cemetery; Fred Boyles, Superintendent of the Andersonville National Cemetery and Historic Site; and Brigadier General John W. Nicholson, U.S. Army retired, Secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission, to join us.
Thanks again for all of you being here and thank you especially to our witnesses.
Before I make my remarks, I would just suggest that we Pledge Allegiance to the Flag. Either end of the room will do.
[Pledge of Allegiance.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you.
Today's hearing on Veterans' Cemeteries: Honoring Those Who Served will provide this Subcommittee and its members with an opportunity to receive an update on the cemeteries holding the remains of our veterans.
As some may know, veterans who have served in this country's Armed Services are buried in cemeteries operated by the States, the VA, the Department of the Interior, Arlington National Cemetery, American Battle Monuments Commission, and private industry.
From all reports, it appears that the VA's National Cemetery Administration is doing a good job running the cemeteries under its jurisdiction. However, I do have some concerns which I hope will be addressed today.
First, I want the VA to expound upon its standard for creating new national cemeteries. Is the current standard adequate for both urban and rural locations and does the VA provide opportunity for public input during the new cemetery selection process?
In addition, I would like to be updated on the current status of the national shrine commitment.
Finally, I am looking forward to learning why it took close to a decade for the VA to display and recognize the Wiccan emblem. As most are aware, the military has long allowed Wiccans to practice their faith on military installations, but the VA, only recently, after litigation, started to allow the Wiccan symbol on gravestones.
I would like to be assured that the statements made by President Bush in 1999 had nothing to do with the VA refusing to recognize the Wiccan symbol.
Also, with respect to Arlington National Cemetery, I wish every cemetery could look as pristine and immaculate as the grounds at Arlington. However, this attractiveness does come at a cost.
It has been reported that those waiting to be buried in Arlington face a backlog. I do not think that the veterans who have sacrificed so much for our country should have to wait to be buried nor should their families. I am interested in finding out about the burial process at Arlington and whether individuals do indeed face lengthy delays.
I would also like the superintendent to touch upon the recent burial of Jack Valenti. I would like to know why a veteran of his stature, over 50 combat missions during World War II, needed a waiver to be buried at Arlington.
Next we will hear from a representative of the National Park Service which is responsible for operating several Civil War era cemeteries. It has come to my attention that some of these cemeteries are not being maintained at an acceptable standard worthy of those who have fought for this country.
It would be nice to know if these reports are an aberration or signs of a pattern. If it is a pattern, please tell the Committee what it can do to improve the current situation.
We will also hear from the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) which very few Americans even know exists or what it is that they actually do. I am interested in learning about their efforts to educate people about Americans interred overseas.
I also would like to note the significance of having the American Battle Monuments Commission testify on the 62nd anniversary of V-E Day.
In closing, I would just like to say that I believe we must maintain our promise to those who have done so much for our country. Providing them a well-maintained and respectable final resting place is the least we can do.
And I will now yield to Ranking Member Lamborn for an opening statement.
[The statement of Chairman Hall appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. LAMBORN. Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for holding this hearing on America's national cemeteries.
I thank our witnesses in advance for their testimony today and for their dedication to serving America's veterans and their families.
Properly honoring a deceased veteran is one of our most solemn and indeed sacred obligations. These patriots have earned honored repose in a national shrine. They and their families are due the tribute and thanks of a grateful Nation.
As members of the greatest generation passed from our presence, we are seeing increased demand on all of our national cemeteries. VA estimates that interments in national cemeteries will rise from the current level of 2.8 million to 3.2 million by 2012.
Mr. Chairman, it is for that reason especially that I thank you for your leadership in helping to pass House Resolution 1660 out of this Subcommittee two weeks ago. This bill would establish a national cemetery in southern Colorado and greatly benefit those veterans and families in this fast-growing area.
Concerned that national cemeteries under its jurisdiction both new and old are maintained as national shrines, VA is at work fulfilling its excellent national Shrine commitment. That effort, however, is still years from completion.
That is why in fiscal year 2008 Republican views and estimates, we recommended an additional $9 million over the Administration's $166.8 million requests for operations and maintenance at VA's National Cemetery Administration.
Further, Mr. Chairman, we recommended an additional $5 million for minor construction. We also recommended an additional $60 million to accelerate VA's five-year strategic plan to fund national cemetery grave site expansion and shrine completion.
We should not wait for years to ensure that the resting places for these patriots reflects our Nation's recognition of their service and sacrifice.
It is my understanding that most of our national cemeteries are kept in excellent condition. Certainly my own experience at the Fort Logan National Cemetery reinforces this perception.
I am pleased to note that we have today a representative of the American Battle Monuments Commission. The Commission's standards are legendary and I hope to soon visit one or more of their cemeteries for our war dead.
Disappointing exceptions to these high standards do exist, however. Andersonville National Cemetery in Andersonville, Georgia, the site of the notorious Confederate prisoner of war camp, is one of thirteen national cemeteries run by the National Park Service and it is one of two run by the Park Service that currently inters veterans.
My staff is now passing out photos that depict the deteriorating condition of gravestones and construction at Andersonville. I look forward to learning more about operations and maintenance at this and other Park Service cemeteries as well as cemeteries run by VA and the ABMC.
Mr. Chairman, it is within the capacity of Congress to help ensure that any national cemetery now deficient rises to the highest standards. We must not delay in that work.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and I yield back.
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Mr. Lamborn.
After the first panel has finished with their testimony, members will be recognized for five minutes to make remarks and/or ask questions.
So at this time, I would like to recognize Mr. John Metzler, Superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery. Mr. Metzler.
STATEMENTS OF JOHN C. METZLER, JR., SUPERINTENDENT, ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY, DEPARTMENT OF THE ARMY, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE, AND ALSO ON BEHALF OF THE SOLDIERS' AND AIRMEN'S HOME NATIONAL CEMETERIES; FRED BOYLES, SUPERINTENDENT, ANDERSONVILLE NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE AND CEMETERY, NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR; AND BRIGADIER GENERAL JOHN W. NICHOLSON, USA (RET.), SECRETARY, AMERICAN BATTLE MONUMENTS COMMISSION, ACCOMPANIED BY BRIGADIER GENERAL WILLIAM J. LESZCZYNSKI, JR., USA (RET.), EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, AMERICAN BATTLE MONUMENTS COMMISSION, GUY GIANCARLO, CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER, AMERICAN BATTLE MONUMENTS COMMISSION, JEANNIE FAURE, BUDGET OFFICER, AMERICAN BATTLE MONUMENTS COMMISSION, AND THOMAS R. SOLE, DIRECTOR OF ENGINEERING AND MAINTENANCE, AMERICAN BATTLE MONUMENTS COMMISSION,
Mr. METZLER. Thank you, Mr. Chairman, members of the Subcommittee. Good afternoon.
I appreciate the opportunity to testify in support of Arlington and the soldiers in Airmen's Home national cemeteries run by the Department of the Army.
Mr. Chairman, with your permission, I would like to briefly summarize my complete statement and ask that my full statement be submitted for the record. Thank you.
Mr. HALL. That will be done.
Mr. METZLER. Thank you, sir.
In fiscal year 2006, we had all-time record for interments at Arlington National Cemetery with 4,059 ground burials and 2,580 internments in the Columbarium of which 103 were related to the War on Terrorism.
I would also note that our operation costs are increasing as the cemetery continues to expand and improve as we make the overall appearance of our national shrine improve with each day.
In fiscal year 2008, our budget includes funds for the expansion needs and efforts at Arlington National Cemetery to ensure that we remain an active, open burial space well into the next century.
I am happy to report that phase one of a 40-acre land development project called LD90 has been completed. This project adds 26,000 graves to Arlington.
Phase two is about to start later this year and will add a boundary niche wall which will add 5,000 niches when completed.
In summary, Mr. Chairman, Arlington continues to be one of the most visited sacred grounds in our National Capitol region and accommodates almost four million visitors each year.
Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to testify before your Committee on behalf of these cemeteries.
[The statement of Mr. Metzler appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you very much, Mr. Metzler.
And the Chair will now recognize Mr. Boyles for his testimony.
Mr. BOYLES. Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman. I genuinely appreciate the opportunity to represent the Department of the Interior today in talking about national cemeteries and their special place in our national parks.
My name is Fred Boyles and I am the superintendent of Andersonville National Historic Site & National Cemetery which is a unit of our National Park system.
I have been a National Park Superintendent since 1985 at three different sites. In reference to today's hearing, I have been the Superintendent at Andersonville National Cemetery since 1989.
I was recently appointed in November 2006 as an ex officio member representing the National Park Service on the National Cemetery Advisory Commission of the Department of Veterans Affairs. And in this capacity, I have been able to work closely with the Department of Veterans Affairs on improving the management of our hallowed national cemeteries and the National Park Service.
Also, as a Navy Reserve officer who was mobilized and deployed in 2004 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I understand the meaning of these remarkable places from the perspective of our veterans.
The National Park Service manages and protects 14 of the Nation's national cemeteries. Andrew Johnson and Custer National Cemetery at the Little Big Horn National Battlefield are cemeteries that the Park Service manages that are not Civil War sites. The other 12 are all Civil War related cemeteries.
Two of our national cemeteries within the National Park Service are still open to veterans for burials. They are Andersonville National Cemetery in southwest Georgia, where I work, and Andrew Johnson National Cemetery located in east Tennessee.
In 2006, Andersonville buried 161 veterans and their dependents while Andrew Johnson buried 67. As of January 2007, Andrew Johnson had approximately 457 grave spaces available and Andersonville had 6,669 grave spaces available.
Both of these cemeteries follow the same rules and regulations for burials as those that are administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs. And I should say that in these cemeteries, the service that we give to our veterans and their families are the highest priority in our park operation.
Cemeteries that are more than a century old require constant attention. Over the past five years, the National Park Service has devoted more than a million dollars in project funds to protect stone walls, headstones, monuments, and walkways in our cemeteries.
Some examples of those that have recently been completed are $675,000 to repoint and repair the cemetery walls at Andersonville, Battleground Cemetery, Fort Donelson and Fredericksburg national cemeteries.
Recently $145,000 was spent to realign and maintain headstones at Gettysburg, Stone's River, Vicksburg National Cemetery, and also at Andrew Johnson.
In addition to these projects, each unit of the National Park Service with a national cemetery has a maintenance staff who has dedicated at least part of their time to maintaining headstones and grounds.
In 2005, the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training delivered nine classes on cemetery preservation to some 300 National Park Service employees.
The Center has also partnered with the Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration on a multi-year project to test cleaning agents for headstones.
I should also add that the pictures that have been passed out, they are not up to date because all of our headstones have just been recently cleaned at Andersonville National Cemetery. So I think this is about two or three years old.
While we have devoted funds and employees to cemetery maintenance, as is often the case with historic resources, much still remains to be done. And we are working closely with the VA to upgrade our cemeteries to the conditions set forth in their recently updated cemetery standards of appearance.
Also, our cemeteries are part of the stories that make our parks special. Every day our park rangers give talks and programs to visitors about these cemeteries and their significance as places where conflict has shaped our past.
Once again, I thank the Committee for allowing me to present this testimony and would be happy to answer any questions that any of you have about the National Park Service's national cemeteries.
[The statement of Mr. Boyles appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Superintendent Boyles.
The Chair will now recognize General Nicholson.
General NICHOLSON. Mr. Chairman, members of the Subcommittee, I would like to begin my statement with the words of Harry Truman when he said—
Mr. HALL. General, could you please push the button on your microphone and see if that works.
General NICHOLSON. I will start over.
Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee, I would like to begin my statement with words of Harry Truman's when he said, "Our debt to the heroic men and valued women in the service of our country can never be repaid. They have earned our undying gratitude. Americans will never forget their sacrifices."
When visitors approach the new Normandy American Visitor Center that we will dedicate on June 6, these words of President Truman's are the first words these visitors will read. The statement mirrors the mission of the American Battle Monuments Commission which is to honor and commemorate the service, achievements, and sacrifice of America's Armed Forces.
Our fiscal year 2008 appropriation request for $53.3 million enables us to continue that mission. It funds the Commission's expenses and salaries account as well as our foreign currency fluctuation account.
For our expenses and salaries account, we request $42.1 million to support the Commission's requirements for service fees, scheduled maintenance and repairs, supplies, materials, spare parts, equipment replacement, capital improvement, and personnel costs.
Our request maintains staffing levels at 404 full-time equivalent positions and $1.6 million for security enhancements to open and protect the Normandy Visitor Center, its employees, and its visitors. These security enhancements are required by the Regional Security Office of the U.S. Embassy in Paris.
We have also included $1.4 million to support annual operations at the visitor center. Fiscal year 2008 funding provides the first full-year operating costs of the visitor center.
Our ongoing worldwide ABMC challenge is to sustain the high standards of excellence we have set in maintaining our commemorative sites and shrines to America's war dead while continuing to do a better job of telling the story of those we honor and persuading millions more people of all nationalities to see these splendid sites which reflect the values of our United States of America.
For our foreign currency fluctuation account, we request $11.2 million to replenish the funds needed to defray losses experienced due to currency fluctuation so we can maintain our buying power for services and materials to operate and sustain our commemorative sites in the European and Mediterranean regions.
ABMC has struggled with maintaining our purchasing power over the years. In 2005, we needed a special foreign currency appropriation to do so. For fiscal year 2008, we propose a change in our approach to funding the foreign currency fluctuation account.
New appropriation language requests an indefinite appropriation to supply "such sums" as may be necessary to maintain buying power against the European Euro, the British Pound, and other currencies. With this legislation, the Congress could use the such sums language proposal to reestimate our foreign currency requirements if needed during the year.
Foreign currency is very important to ABMC. As noted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), over 70 percent of ABMC's budget is paid in Euros or pounds. The volatility of exchange rates combined with a weakening dollar has increased the real cost of our ABMC mission and made it more difficult to plan and budget as effectively as we would like.
An indefinite appropriation would remove some foreign currency vagaries from our budget preparation and execution. For example, we began the fiscal year 2008 budget process a year ago which was two years before we will actually begin to purchase foreign currency to pay our staff and suppliers abroad. Exchange rates can change significantly over two years. The such sums appropriations language would enable the Congress to remove that uncertainty.
On May 1st, 2006, one European Euro cost 1.2639 U.S. Dollars. One year later, on April 30th, 2007, one European Euro cost 1.366 U.S. dollars, an eight percent decrease in the purchasing power of the dollar. The such sums language would protect our purchasing power against such drops.
ABMC would continue to work with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), GAO, and the Congressional staff in choosing an appropriate currency rate for our budget submissions. However, the Congress by incorporating the such sums flexibility could prevent the situation where the foreign currency fluctuation is the determining factor in selecting which activities or projects we can afford to pursue.
In other words, without such sums authorization, a decrease in the value of the U.S. dollar vis-à-vis the European Euro or British pound could necessitate a halt to vital maintenance projects in order to pay salaries or other expenses. Allowing us to focus on our mission is the real payoff of this such sums change in approach to foreign currency fluctuations.
Our facilities, most of which were constructed following World War I and World War II, have aged considerably. Over time, deterioration accelerates and the cost of materials, labor, and utilities are increasing around the world.
We are allocating three million toward high-priority engineering projects specifically designed to protect the American people's investment in the commemorative sites for which we are responsible. This funding will be used to perform periodic maintenance and to correct deficiencies within our infrastructure.
Since 2002, the Commission has been in the process of designing and constructing a visitor center near the D Day beach head at the Normandy American Cemetery in France. The visitor center will tell the story of the 9,387 American soldiers buried at Normandy and the 1,557 missing in action memorialized there.
Construction is nearly complete and we will dedicate the new center four weeks from tomorrow, on June 6, 2007, the 63rd anniversary of the D Day landings.
Our challenge is to sustain the high standards of excellence we have set in maintaining our commemorative sites and shrines to America's war dead. Concurrently, we are doing a better job of telling the story of these uniquely splendid cemeteries and memorials which inspire patriotism, evoke gratitude, and teach history to all who visit.
We are grateful for the support we receive from the House. The trust you place in us and your understanding of our operational needs ensures that we have sufficient resources when we need them to sustain our operations.
I would like to close by introducing the members of my staff that accompanied me today, and I will begin with introducing Brigadier General William Leszczynski, Jr., U.S. Army retired, who is the Executive Director and Operating Officer at ABMC.
Next, I would like to introduce Guy Giancarlo, the Chief Financial Officer. Next Jeannie Faure, our Budget Officer and Tom Sole, the Director of Engineering and Maintenance.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. This concludes my opening statement. I will be pleased to respond to your questions.
[The statement of General Nicholson appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you, General, and thank you to your staff. Thank you to our other witnesses.
I will just kick off with a couple of questions. Superintendent Metzler, would you estimate how long, on average, does a veteran have to wait to be buried? Is there a backlog for burials and does it matter whether the veteran died in OIF/OEF?
Mr. METZLER. Mr. Chairman, there is no easy answer to your question, so let me see if I can take some of it apart. Let me go with the last of it first.
On our servicemembers who are killed in active duty, we push those to the top of the schedule and we get as creative as we can with those burials to accommodate the families and make those funerals happen within two weeks if not sooner.
The other question is asked about veterans being buried in the cemetery. It depends upon whether they are being inurned in the Columbarium or being buried in the ground, whether they have received full military honors, standard military honors, or request a chapel service. Each of these contribute to the delay, if you will, and often referred to as the backlog.
The challenge I have is I have one chapel that is available to me, two caissons which are administered by the Department of the Army that we use for all branches of the military. Each of these funerals are more complicated. They take more time. I can only do eight of these funerals a day. I am currently averaging between 25 and 30 funerals each workday.
So the average wait for someone who is asking for a full-honor funeral with a chapel service in the middle of the workday and asking for a Catholic priest or a Jewish rabbi as they are not bringing their own clergy with them could be four to five weeks.
And that unfortunately happens all the time during this peak season, the spring and the summer when people are coming to Arlington in greater numbers. The numbers seem to fall off a little bit in the wintertime. But once the spring weather comes and people start traveling, with school breaks and so on, our funeral rate increases pretty much to a full schedule every day.
Mr. HALL. And thank you, sir. I just wanted to ask you also, do you have currently any unfunded requirements?
Mr. METZLER. My budget right now is sufficient to carry me forward with the projects that we have laid out at this time.
Mr. HALL. Thank you. You are in a very small minority and we appreciate your saying that.
Superintendent Boyles, I wanted to ask if there is anything the VA Committee can do to help the state of the grave sites under your jurisdiction. You mentioned before that it is not as bad as it was and there is, I guess, periodic cleanups or dealgaefication or whatever the term is. Can we help you more at this point?
Mr. BOYLES. Yes, sir, Mr. Chairman. It is interesting because these are dramatic pictures. And what you have is when these headstones, which were all placed in 1878, is that when you clean them, you are taking a little bit of a layer off of them. And so it has always been our desire to wait as long as possible before cleaning the stones because we want them to last as long as we can.
And so it is generally either, one, we will clean them all, usually in the summer, every two or every three years and depending on how long we can get them to last. And one of the factors that contributes to that is how much it has rained. So if we have a very rainy season, we get more mildew and algae growing on them. And so we do our best to wait as long as possible.
Mr. HALL. Thank you.
And, lastly, General Nicholson, in your testimony, you request a change in the approach to funding. Specifically you request new language that allows for "such sums" as may be necessary to compensate for fluctuations in currency.
Do any other Federal entities that you are aware of who operate overseas use similar language, and what is the genesis for the idea?
General NICHOLSON. Yes, sir. I would like to answer the question.
Mr. HALL. Would you turn your microphone on again, please. Thank you.
General NICHOLSON. Sir, I am glad you asked that question. I believe the Justice Department uses that and I would ask Guy Giancarlo to elaborate on this.
We did not originate the idea. The idea was suggested to us. I believe it is from OMB. And it has been working successfully with the other department. I believe it is the Justice Department.
Guy, is that right?
Mr. GIANCARLO. Yes, sir. If I may, I am Guy Giancarlo, CFO. It is used by the Justice Department, their independent councils, and allows Congress to continue maintaining oversight.
But because we are such a small agency, our total budget, $42 million in expenses, over 70 percent of those affected by foreign currency fluctuation, we cannot predict the tremendous decrease in the value of the dollar purchasing power vis-à-vis the European Euro that we have experienced this past year nor should we as such a government agency be forecasting what the exchange rate should be. So OMB suggested that we go the route similar to the Justice Department in terms of the independent councils. The question is indefinite appropriation.
Mr. HALL. Thank you very much.
My time is expired. So the Chair will now recognize Mr. Lamborn.
Mr. LAMBORN. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. Metzler, could you please describe the process to the Committee for getting a waiver from someone who wants to be buried in Arlington and then apart from that, what are the current requirements without a waiver?
Mr. METZLER. Yes, sir. Anyone requesting a waiver, their letter would come into wherever it came into the government. It would eventually work itself to my office. We request that they provide a copy of their military records, any extenuating circumstances that would credit this individual with extraordinary contributions, and then a public disclosure consent form.
We would take this, package it up, and submit it to the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower Affairs with my recommendation. From that office, it would be staffed to various offices around the Pentagon and then eventually up to the Secretary of the Army for his decision.
Once a decision is rendered, it would come back to my office and then we would inform the family as to whether or not the request has been approved or disapproved.
As far as eligibility is concerned, there are two tracts at Arlington Cemetery, traditional ground burial. Anyone who dies on active duty is entitled to ground burial. Anyone who has retired from the military with 20 years of active-duty service or greater, anyone who has retired from the Reserves age 60 and one period of active-duty service is entitled.
Veterans who are honorably discharged and also in receipt of our Nation's highest military awards, the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star, or the Purple Heart, former prisoners of war who have served honorably, honorably discharged veterans who also hold the office of Vice President, members of Congress, the members of the Supreme Court, and Ambassadors at a level one posting. The President of the United States or former Presidents of the United States does not have to have military service. All the individuals I referenced, their spouses or dependent children, and then any honorably discharged veteran with one period of active-duty service is entitled to have his or her cremated remains placed into our Columbarium.
Mr. LAMBORN. Thank you.
Mr. METZLER. Yes, sir.
Mr. LAMBORN. And a second question is after the Project 90 land is used up, do you have any further sites in mind that could be used beyond Project 90?
Mr. METZLER. Yes. We are currently working three different other initiatives right now. The Millennium Project which is a piece of property that consists of a part of Arlington Cemetery, a former part of the National Park Service, and part of Fort Myer, all these pieces of property touch each other and will form a new burial section.
Also Public Law 106-65 was passed a few years ago that would send to us the Navy Annex once it comes out of service. The Pentagon is currently using the Navy Annex as swing space for its renovation.
And then finally, we have an initiative to relocate all our utilities that are currently in the grass underneath roadways. That will open that land up and give us additional grave space.
Those three additional initiatives, plus the LD 90 Project that has just recently been completed will take us to the year 2060 and we will have grave sites available for Arlington Cemetery for additional burials.
Mr. LAMBORN. Thank you.
Mr. METZLER. Yes, sir.
Mr. LAMBORN. Those are all the questions I have at this time, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Mr. Lamborn.
The Chair will now recognize Mr. Hare.
Mr. HARE. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I could not concur more in terms of the sites for our veterans being considered shrines giving everything they have ever had for this country. I am fortunate to have one in my district, the Rock Island Army Arsenal Cemetery which I think is a wonderful facility.
I just have one quick question for you, Mr. Metzler. You said that there is significant crowding, in your testimony, you said this is occurring at the Arlington National Cemetery, and you said this crowding is compromising the dignity of the funerals by distracting families at nearby services.
I wonder if you could expand on that. What sort of delays are you experiencing and what actions are being taken to address it?
Mr. METZLER. Well, the delays fall into what the families are asking for. If we have a standard military honors which consist of a firing party, a casket team, a bugler, and a chaplain, those funerals generally can be done within two weeks of the time of eligibility being established.
It is when we get beyond and ask for what they call full-honor funerals which only Arlington Cemetery has the capability of asking. Those amenities could include a caisson, a fly-over, the escort that marches along with the troops, and a band.
The first challenge is are the military available the day you are asking. They have other duties and obligations around the National Capitol region. As an example right now, Queen Elizabeth is in our country visiting and some of those resources are dedicated to her visit. So when they are at that location, they may not be available to Arlington Cemetery.
The next, of course, is training and availability with the horses. Anyone who is entitled to a full-honor funeral generally wants that full-honor funeral and wants the caisson as part of that service that is provided for them at Arlington.
We only have two caisson units. On average, it takes about two hours to start a funeral, to finish a funeral, and turn around to start again. So with two caissons, the maximum funerals we can do in one day are eight. People are very willing to wait for that honor and it may take several weeks for that to happen.
All I can do is I can address it to the military. I can explain to them what our challenges are, ask them for their cooperation. They have been very willing to listen to me, but they are like everyone else. They have requirements and they can only provide to me what is available each day.
Mr. HARE. I wonder if you would comment though. You said there is significant crowding and you stated that it is compromising the dignity of the funerals. What do you mean by that? In terms of the space limitations or—
Mr. METZLER. Well, one of the things on the crowding is we do not want to have two funerals within the same visual or in the hearing area so that we do not have one funeral taking place two or three hundred yards away and another funeral taking place at the same time so you are hearing the firing parties going off simultaneously or hearing taps going off within a few seconds of each other. We are trying to make each funeral as special as possible and allow the family that moment while they are in the cemetery to think that they are the only thing going on while they are at Arlington. So we want to spread out our funeral areas to allow that to happen.
Typically we are doing four and five funerals simultaneously in the cemetery throughout the workday.
Mr. HARE. Well, it is a wonderful cemetery and I just commend you for all the hard work you have done.
And I would yield back, Mr. Chairman. Thank you.
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Mr. Hare.
I will now recognize Representative Bilirakis.
Mr. BILIRAKIS. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I appreciate it very much.
I wanted to ask Doug's question. How many waivers, sir, are submitted and how many are granted within a year?
Mr. METZLER. On any average year, we receive about 20 to 25 waivers. Most of the waivers that we receive are for family members that do not meet our normal eligibility criteria. They are going into the same grave that has already been established by a family member who is authorized. All of those are approved provided that they are not bringing along with them someone else in their family. So the benefit is limited to one person.
For people who are asking for new graves, first-time burial in the cemetery, they are rare. We have not approved one since 2001 at the Army level.
Mr. BILIRAKIS. Thank you.
Mr. Metzler, what steps has Arlington National Cemetery taken to implement the "Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act" that was passed last Congress?
Mr. METZLER. I am sorry, sir. I did not quite understand the last part of your question.
Mr. BILIRAKIS. "America's Fallen Heroes Act" which was passed recently in the last Congress, what steps has Arlington National Cemetery taken to implement that Act?
Mr. METZLER. Sir, I am not familiar with that. I need a little more information to answer your question.
Mr. BILIRAKIS. Yeah. We worked on this in the legislature in Florida and it is the military demonstration. In other words, interrupting nuisances at funerals, what have you, and, you know, I was just told that—but I know we worked on that in the State of Florida. So you are familiar.
Mr. METZLER. Now I am familiar with it. Thank you, sir.
Mr. BILIRAKIS. Okay.
Mr. METZLER. We have worked extensively with the United States Park Police who have the jurisdiction for Arlington Cemetery to ensure that when we do have a demonstration protest at Arlington Cemetery that they stay the proper distance away, that they do not interrupt the flow of traffic or funerals coming in and out of the cemetery, and that they are confined to an area that has no effect on the visiting public if they are walking to the cemetery as well. So for us, it has worked very well in the past few years.
Mr. BILIRAKIS. Very good. So it is being enforced. Thank you.
Mr. METZLER. Yes, sir.
Mr. BILIRAKIS. Thank you.
Mr. HALL. I just wanted to comment on that, "Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act," which was enacted on May 29th of 2006, prohibiting protests within 300 feet of the entrance of a cemetery under the control of the National Cemetery Administration.
We all can find out the details to that if we want, but it is passed unanimously by the Senate and overwhelmingly by the House and signed by the President.
Ms. BERKLEY. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, and I will be brief because I know we want to get to the third panel.
I just wanted to thank all of you gentlemen for the extraordinary service that you provide for our country and for our fallen heroes. While I have never had the honor and privilege of going overseas and seeing our cemeteries there, I have spent considerable time at Arlington both as a civilian visiting and enjoying it with my family and also as a member of Congress attending a number of services there.
It is magnificent, and I thank you very much for what you have done. And you have my full support in helping you to continue the extraordinary work that you do.
Mr. METZLER. Thank you.
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Ms. Berkley.
With that, I believe our first panel may be excused. Thank you, gentlemen. Superintendent Metzler, Superintendent Boyles, and General Nicholson, thank you very much for your testimony.
And we will ask our second panel, Kimo Hollingsworth, the National Legislative Director of AMVETS; Lesley Witter, Director of Political Affairs for the National Funeral Directors Association; Colonel George S. Webb, U.S. Army retired, Executive Director of the Kansas Veterans Commission, to join us, please.
Thank you all for being here and for your patience. The chair will now recognize Mr. Hollingsworth.
STATEMENTS OF KIMO S. HOLLINGSWORTH, NATIONAL LEGISLATIVE DIRECTOR, AMERICAN VETERANS (AMVETS); LESLEY WITTER, DIRECTOR OF POLITICAL AFFAIRS, NATIONAL FUNERAL DIRECTORS ASSOCIATION; AND COLONEL GEORGE S. WEBB, USA (RET.), CHAIRMAN, MEMORIAL AFFAIRS COMMITTEE, NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF STATE DIRECTORS OF VETERANS AFFAIRS, AND EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, KANSAS COMMISSION ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
Mr. HOLLINGSWORTH. Mr. Chairman, members of the Subcommittee, thank you for holding this hearing regarding the National Cemetery Administration.
AMVETS would like to say that overall, although burial benefits are that, benefits, this issue really transcends the issue of veterans' benefits. Both VA and State-sponsored VA cemeteries, they really define America's past, present, and it is really about preserving our history and our culture. Their final resting places are filled with history of a great Nation and we have said it before, but they really truly are national shrines.
Mr. Chairman, Public Law 106-17 required VA to contract for an independent study on improvements to veterans cemeteries. Overall, VA provided this Committee with three volumes as part of the study on improvements to veterans cemeteries. I am not going to recap those in depth.
Volume I provided an assessment of the number of additional cemeteries that would be required to ensure that 90 percent of the veterans live within 75 miles of a national cemetery beginning in 2005 and projecting out to about 2020.
The national shrine commitment condition facility assessment report, it really provided the first independent system-wide comprehensive review of the conditions at 119 national cemeteries at that time.
Last but not least, cemetery standards of appearance address the requirements related to the feasibility of establishing standards of appearance for our national cemeteries commensurate with those of some of the finest cemeteries in the world.
I think the important point on that one is that there was no real consistency in terms of defining a national standard, so to speak, that each cemetery is somewhat unique and there is different ways that you can have standards of excellence with regards to how they look and appear.
Overall, AMVETS believes that honoring those who served through the NCA, as I stated, is an important part of our culture and history and national identity. As we have testified in the past, we support NCA as it seeks to develop additional national cemeteries, expand existing capabilities, and also to encourage individual States to develop State cemeteries through the State Cemetery Grants Program.
Overall, we continue to recommend that Congress establish a five-year, 250 million National Shrine Initiative to restore and improve the condition, character of national cemeteries.
One final word is that overall, you know, national cemeteries, the maintenance of them, it is a very expensive proposition. And in order to bring them up to speed and continuing honoring those who serves, it is not a once done deal. You have to continue to make investments and reinvestments in those initiatives.
[The statement of Mr. Hollingsworth appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Mr. Hollingsworth.
The Chair will now recognize Ms. Witter.
Ms. WITTER. Mr. Chairman, members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today on behalf of the members of the National Funeral Directors Association.
I am Lesley Witter, NFDA's Director of Political Affairs. The National Funeral Directors Association represents more than 13,000 funeral homes and over 21,000 licensed funeral directors and embalmers in all 50 States.
The NFDA has a great interest in veterans cemeteries as our members provide both funeral and burial services for our Nation's veterans on a daily basis. As a result, they use national veterans cemeteries as well as State veterans cemeteries often.
In a recent survey of our members, we have received an almost unanimous response that our Nation's veterans cemeteries operate efficiently, effectively, and with much compassion for those being buried there as well as for their families.
Our members have found the management and operation of these cemeteries to be courteous, flexible, and accommodating to the needs of the funeral director and the family members of the deceased veterans. From our members' standpoint, the operation and management of our veterans cemeteries is of the highest caliber.
However, while most of our members are well satisfied with the services provided to them by veterans cemeteries, there are some improvements that could be made. For example, one NFDA member from Massachusetts explains that he is a funeral director in Brockton, Massachusetts, who has interments at the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne probably 40 to 50 times a year.
He goes on to state that the entire staff of Bourne is fantastic. They are very helpful and accommodating to the families and the funeral director's staff. He notes that he especially appreciates the improvement of being able to call the Jefferson Barracks in Missouri on weekends to schedule funerals in Bourne.
NFDA would like to note that we know of no veterans cemeteries that are available for burials on weekends except in special circumstances. In fact, weekend burials in veterans cemeteries appear to be a general problem for many of our members.
In our dealings with the National Cemetery Administration on issues, problems, or questions that arise from time to time, our members have found them to be very responsive and eager to assist in any way possible to find a solution.
Finally, Mr. Chairman, I would like to express our strong support for House Resolution 358, a bill that would expand and make permanent the Department of Veterans Affairs benefit for government markers for marked graves of veterans buried in private cemeteries.
In addition, House Resolution 1273 which was introduced by Subcommittee member, Representative Berkley, that would restore the plot allowance and marker allowance for veterans who want to be buried in a private cemetery and want a non-government headstone or marker, but who are eligible for a free government headstone or marker is currently being reviewed by our Advocacy Committee.
I would also like to commend the Committee on its passage of legislation that prohibits demonstrations at the funerals and burials of our fallen heroes in Afghanistan and Iraq. Our members very much appreciate the concern of Congress in protecting the privacy of these very solemn and emotional occasions.
Mr. Chairman, that concludes my testimony. I hope it has been helpful. Thank you again for the opportunity to appear and present the views of the National Funeral Directors Association. I will be happy to answer any questions you or other members of the Subcommittee may have.
[The statement of Ms. Witter appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Ms. Witter.
And the Chair will now recognize Colonel Webb.
Colonel WEBB. Thank you, Mr. Chairman and distinguished members. I am George Webb, Executive Director of the Kansas Commission on Veterans Affairs and Chairman of the Memorial Affairs Committee of the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs or NASDVA.
On behalf of our President, Secretary John Garcia of New Mexico, I thank you for the opportunity to testify and present our views of our State Directors of Veterans Affairs from all 50 States and our commonwealths and territories.
Each State Director or Secretary is appointed by his or her Governor. And collectively we are the Nation's second largest provider of services to veterans. Our State Directors spend a total of over $4 billion of State money annually to ensure that veterans receive all benefits due. We run State veterans homes, oversee the management of State veterans cemeteries, and employ accredited and trained Veteran Service Officers.
While each State's structure differs slightly, these are the principal responsibilities of most of us. In some States, the Director also oversees the process of job training and employment for veterans. We are on the front line assisting America's veterans with the benefits that they deserve.
The mission of the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs is to work in collaboration with the Federal Government as it strives to disseminate information regarding all laws beneficial to veterans, their widows, and their children; to assist veterans and their dependents in the preparation and initiation of claims against the United States by reason of military service; and to assist veterans, widows, and children of veterans in establishing the privileges to which they are entitled.
Our association recognizes the great worth and merit of all existing veterans organizations and we assert our willingness and determination to cooperate with them.
Today I would like to address the Subcommittee on State veterans cemeteries. Each State now has a national cemetery or a State veterans cemetery or more. Like others, we State Directors consider these cemeteries as shrines to veterans who helped preserve our freedom and memorials to those who contributed to the growth, development, and preservation of the United States.
This final veteran's salute honors those who have served our grateful Nation, so we State Directors are committed to ensuring that all veterans are buried with the respect and dignity they deserve.
During our Association conference in February, NASDVA members unanimously passed three resolutions: increase the burial plot allowance, increase funding for the State Veterans Cemetery Grant Program, and establish a State Veterans Cemetery Operations Grant Program.
Briefly stated, when a State veterans cemetery project is approved, the VA fully funds its construction and initial equipment outlay. And the State then assumes operational costs in perpetuity.
Mr. Chairman, Committee members, the average operational cost of interment in a State veterans cemetery is $2,000. And, of course, that differs widely by the number of burials. Yet, the current burial plot allowance of $300 per qualified interment covers only 15 percent of that cost.
NASDVA recommends the plot allowance be increased to $1,000 in order to offset operational costs borne by the States. The increase should also apply to the plot allowance for veterans interments in private ceremonies.
Second, the State Veterans Cemetery Grant Program has greatly expanded our ability to provide grave sites for veterans and their eligible family members in areas where national cemeteries cannot fully satisfy burial needs, particularly in rural and remote areas.
The program has allowed the number of State cemeteries to grow by nearly 40 percent over the past five years with a corresponding increase in interments.
Currently over 40 project preapplications are pending totaling $180 million. Yet, VA funding for these projects has remained flat at $32 million for several years. We ask that grant funding be increased to $50 million.
Third, eligible States receive construction grants for veterans cemeteries and limited burial plot allowance as discussed. Operational costs for State and national veterans cemeteries continue to rise. But once a State establishes a State veterans cemetery, there is no further source of Federal operational funding.
NASDVA recommends the establishment of a Federal grant program to assist State veterans cemeteries with operational costs.
Last year, the Congress authorized veterans cemeteries on Native-American tribal lands. The funding for this program is expected to come from the same flat $32 million appropriated for State veterans cemeteries.
In addition, the VA uses a 75-mile radius calculation in determining where a State veterans cemetery should be built. States with more traffic congestion would like some consideration by using driving time as an additional determinate.
Finally, our State Directors wish to thank the Congress for two bills passed last year. Preventing persons convicted of capital crimes from being eligible for burial in our State cemeteries as well as national cemeteries is important.
Second, the bill passed in December which became Public Law 109-454 is an important step in keeping military funerals dignified and respectful.
Mr. Chairman and distinguished members, we respect the important work that you have done to improve benefits to veterans who have answered the call to serve our Nation. NASDV