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

Good Afternoon.

Would everyone please rise for the Pledge of Allegiance?

Thank you all for coming to today’s Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs’ field hearing entitled “Is the VA Cemetery Construction Policy Meeting the Needs of Today’s Veterans and their Families” – a topic of particular significance to this region and throughout the country. 

A few preliminaries:  First, I ask unanimous consent, that Congressman John Salazar of the 3rd District of Colorado and a member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs be invited to sit on the dais. Without objection, so ordered.   I would also like to recognize any Members or staff representing Members in the audience

Welcome Congressman Salazar.  It is a pleasure to have you be a part of these DAMA Subcommittee proceedings and I know your input will prove invaluable to today’s topic.  I am pleased that H.R. 1660, a bill you sponsored to build a national cemetery in the southern Colorado region passed the full House unanimously and now awaits further action by the Senate.  I know that you and Ranking Member Lamborn as well as the rest of the Colorado delegation have worked on VA’s national cemetery policy concerns in your region on a bipartisan basis. I am glad we are able to bring this hearing to your state where these issues are front and center. 

Last preliminaries: Also, in accordance with Committee Rules, I ask that all cell phones and pagers be turned off.  As we have a lot of business to conduct in a short period of time I would like to conduct this hearing with as few interruptions as possible.  Also, out of respect for our witnesses, I ask the audience to please refrain from speaking out of order. 

I would first like to thank the witnesses for coming today to appear before the Subcommittee.  I know the issues pertinent to the national cemetery policy at the Department of Veterans Affairs or “VA”, are of utmost importance to you.  I look forward to receiving your testimonies.

On a personal note, as Chairman of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, it is a  special privilege for me to conduct this hearing in my Ranking Member’s district, Mr. Doug Lamborn and an honor for me to be able to address the issues facing veterans in or nearby their hometowns. Although my district, the 19th district of New York is thousands of miles away, we share a lot of similarities with Mr. Lamborn’s district (CO-5th).  For instance both our districts are home to one of our nation’s fine military academies, in mine there is West Point and in Mr. Lamborn’s, the U.S. Air Force Academy.  Also our districts house many prominent military installations and are both places where a high percentage of our nation’s veterans call home.  In fact, the Southern Colorado region, I understand is home to one of the largest concentrations of World War II and Vietnam veterans in the 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 gravesites.  The annual number of burials is on the up rise, with just 36,000 in 1973 to over 100,200 in 2006. 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, and American Battle Monuments Commission.  VA also provides grants to over 69 State veterans’ cemeteries under its National Cemetery Administration’s State Cemetery Grants Program that operate 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 the largest concentration of unserved veterans and providing a reasonable access to a burial option in a 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% of all veterans are served, the converse of which means that there are at least 17% 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 last year 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 is critical that VA makes sure that there is 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% by FY 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 VA’s National Shrine Commitment. 

Lastly, the Subcommittee has been apprised of a situation at Greenwood Island or 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 became disinterred being found by local fisherman I appreciate the NCAs response provided by staff, but I would like to know the NCA implications of this situation and how we can possibly remedy this oversight.