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Opening Statement of Hon. John J. Hall, Chairman, and a Representative in Congress from the State of New York

Thank you all for coming.  Today’s hearing, “Veterans Cemeteries: Honoring Those Who Served,” will provide this Subcommittee an opportunity to receive an update on the cemeteries that hold 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, VA, the Department of Interior, Arlington National Cemetery, American Battle Monuments Commission and private industry. 

From all reports, it appears that 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 want to be updated on the current status of the National Shrine Commitment.

Finally, I want to know 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 today 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 don’t think veterans who have sacrificed so much for our country should have to wait to be buried.  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 want to know why a veteran of his stature--over 50 combat missions during World War II--needed a waiver to be buried in 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 those cemeteries are not being maintained at an acceptable standard worthy of those who have fought for this country.  I would like 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 existed 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 ABMC testify on the 62nd Anniversary of V-E Day (Victory in Europe 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 spot is the least we can do.