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Opening Statement of Honorable Jon Runyan, Chairman, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs

Good afternoon and welcome everyone.  This oversight hearing of the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs will now come to order.

We are here today to examine the current state of our military and veterans’ cemeteries. Our goal in this hearing is to learn more about the recent endeavors and accomplishments of the National Cemetery Administration and the other organizations that are here today.  We are also here to address matters of on-going concern that impact all of the final resting places of our military service members, veterans, and their families, both at home and abroad.  

Members of this Subcommittee, as well as all members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, greatly appreciate the incredible feats of courage and selfless service that our warfighters have demonstrated throughout history.  

Time and time again, America’s servicemembers have been called upon to put the welfare of our nation before their own self-interest.    Our solemn obligation to honor those who have served does not cease at the end of their service commitment, retirement, or ultimately, upon death.   

We have a sacred trust to ensure the dignity of the final resting places of our military and to honor the memories of America’s brave.  As our senior veterans from World War II and the Korean War decrease in numbers, and casualties from Afghanistan return home, our obligation to provide honor to every one of the deceased remains acutely felt.  

This hearing will serve to conduct a broad-spectrum review of recent cemetery and memorial activities at home and abroad.

We will be receiving an update on conditions and improvements at Arlington National Cemetery.  When I first became Chairman of this Subcommittee, fixing the problems at Arlington was a top priority and I have made it a prime focus of oversight and hearings during my tenure.  From my first trip to Arlington to meet with Ms. Condon to get an overview and take care of a constituent headstone issue, I have seen it go from a place where records were kept on library cards in a building with no fire suppression to today where everything is digitized and there is even a phone App that allows people to know exactly where their loved ones are located.  

This Subcommittee’s oversight has been made much easier having Ms. Kathryn Condon as a partner to work with in improving Arlington.  She has taken a mismanaged, insular, previously corrupt environment with no leadership or structure, and along with her team has transformed ANC into what the Army Inspector General described as an organization “transitioning from crisis management to sustained excellence."  

Ms. Condon, I know you are retiring this summer and I want to relay our thanks for your dedicated service to our nation.  The way you have led your team to turn things around at Arlington has been nothing less than extraordinary and it is very important that these best practices continue.  I want to relay how much my staff and I have appreciated working with you to make Arlington the respectful, well-run final resting place our nation’s servicemembers deserve.

We will also be exploring the findings of an internal audit conducted by the National Cemetery Administration, or as we refer to the organization, the “NCA,” as well as the findings of a separate audit of the VA Office of Inspector General, which was done in order to evaluate the corrective actions taken by NCA.  

Specifically, in October 2011, NCA identified discrepancies at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery during a field test done to verify the accuracy of newly formatted gravesite maps.  Ultimately, it was discovered that a headstone placement error occurred as a result of a “raise and realign” project that had been performed by a contractor.   

Since this discovery, NCA has been working to ensure that all gravesite errors are identified and corrected as soon as possible.  Additionally, at the request of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Inspector General, conducted an audit to ensure that the corrective actions taken by NCA had been fully effective.  

Representatives of these groups will be speaking with us today and will offer detail on this issue and the response that has been undertaken.  

While we all understand the duty that is owed to those who served in uniform, we must also recognize that our responsibility extends to the families of these veterans.  It is the responsibility of NCA, and the other groups here today, to provide a dignified and secure environment for the families who visit their loved ones’ resting places.  We must be cognizant that if mistakes are made, the sacred trust is compromised and unnecessary trauma and heartache result to our military, families, and friends.  

I would like to welcome our witnesses today.  These panelists play significant roles in ensuring that we as a Nation fulfill our responsibilities to honor those who have served us all.  We hope that through discussions and questioning such as will occur today, we can work collectively to not only meet the challenges, but to exceed the standard.

Under Secretary Muro is here on behalf of the National Cemetery Administration which oversees 131 cemeteries nationwide.

Ms. Kathryn Condon is here representing the Army National Cemeteries Program, which includes perhaps the most recognizable site of our honored fallen in Arlington National Cemetery.  

Deputy Secretary Wollman represents the American Battle Monuments Commission whose mission is to serve our country’s fallen heroes and the missing in action where they have served overseas.

Next we have Linda Halliday who serves as the Assistant Inspector General for Audits and Evaluations at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Inspector General and she is accompanied today by Ms. Cherie Palmer who is the Director of the Office of Inspector General, Chicago Office of Audits and Evaluations.

We will also be hearing from Diane M. Zumatto, serving as the National Legislative Director with AMVETS, as well as Ami Neiberger-Miller, who is the Director of Outreach and Education with Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.

Finally, a Statement for the Record has been received from Ms. Kari Cowan, the Surviving Spouse of “Chief Warrant Officer Three” Aaron William Cowan, of the United States Army.  Ms. Cowan was affected by a memorial-marker misplacement at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl, in Hawaii.

With those introductions complete, I am eager to hear of the progress that has been made in regards to the National Cemeteries corrective actions and I also look forward to hearing from our American Battle Monuments Commission, Arlington National Cemetery, and our Veterans Service Organizations.  Thank you all for being with us today.  

I now yield to our Ranking Member for her opening statement.