Joint Hearing of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs of the U.S. Senate and the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives at 1:00 p.m. CDT.
Witness Testimony of Hon. Vito Fossella, a Representative in Congress from the State of New York
For years, I have joined with Staten Island veterans in a battle to establish a veteran’s cemetery in the borough. The closest veteran’s cemetery in the area is the Calverton National Cemetery on Long Island, but transportation demands have made it inaccessible for many aging veterans. It can be a grueling 3 to 5 hour roundtrip commute, making traveling there terribly difficult for most of the 28,000 veterans in my district.
There are three primary obstacles preventing the establishment of a veteran’s cemetery on Staten Island. First, a New York State law passed in the mid 1980’s prohibits the state from funding a veteran’s cemetery. Currently, Staten Island’s local representatives are working on a legislative solution to fix this problem.
Second, Staten Island lacks the necessary available acreage for a cemetery. Due to the land shortage, many local veterans have united around the idea of a mausoleum because it requires the least amount of land and is the most cost-effective way to achieve their long-sought goal.
Third, the Department of Veterans Affairs requires a threshold of 170,000 veterans within a 75 mile area to necessitate the establishment of a national veterans cemetery. Due to the Calverton National Cemetery on Long Island, Staten Island falls within a 75 mile radius and therefore is ineligible. For an aging, often disabled veteran population, the 3 to 5 hour commute to Long Island is unreasonable, and simply does not properly serve the veteran population, nor their families, on Staten Island. In addition to the 75 mile rule, the VA generally requires at least 175 acres to be available for a national cemetery. Currently, the existing land on Staten Island that has been offered by Mount Loretto is only 50 acres. But as I mentioned earlier, many local veterans have come to agree to the idea of a mausoleum instead of an actual cemetery.
I believe that the threshold requirements used by the VA are a blunt instrument when applied to determining cemetery eligibility. To refine the process I authored HR 2346, a bill which would improve the process by adding additional variables for the VA to consider when citing a national cemetery.
HR 2346 will direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to establish a process for determining whether a geographic area is sufficiently served by the veteran’s cemeteries located there. The process will take into account the following variables for each geographic area: (1) total number of veterans; (2) average distance a resident must travel to reach the nearest national cemetery; (3) population density; (4) average amount of time it takes a resident to travel to the nearest national cemetery; (5) availability of public transportation for purposes of traveling to national cemeteries; and (6) average amount of fees charged to an individual traveling on the major roads leading to the national cemeteries
Finally, In the case of a geographic area in which sufficient land is not available for the establishment of a cemetery, the Secretary shall consider alternatives such as establishing a mausoleum.
It is worth noting that the VA is currently conducting a study regarding its requirements for establishing national veterans’ cemeteries. A focus of the study is an examination of whether current thresholds are feasible and not overly simplistic in ensuring veteran access. VA knows there is a problem, and I hope my legislation can help fix it.
In closing, Staten Island has one of the highest veterans populations in the state yet it remains unserved by a veterans cemetery. It is my hope that if adopted, my legislation would provide for a place of remembrance for so many of my constituents who deserve such a site closer to home