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Witness Testimony of Hon. William F. Tuerk, National Cemetery Administration, Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs, U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs

Mr. Chairman, Mr. Ranking Member, and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today on VA’s national cemetery construction policy and how the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) is working with Congress to meet veterans’ and their families’ burial needs, an issue of great interest to Colorado veterans.

One of NCA’s four statutory missions under title 38, United States Code, is to provide burial for eligible veterans and their eligible dependents, and to maintain those places of burial as national shrines.

NCA currently maintains more than 2.8 million gravesites at 125 national cemeteries in 39 States and Puerto Rico, as well as 33 soldiers’ lots and monument sites.  Since 1973, when Congress created a National Cemetery System under the jurisdiction of VA, annual interments in VA national cemeteries have almost tripled from 36,400 to about 100,200 in FY 2007.  (We expect to perform nearly 103,000 interments in 2008, a 2.3 percent increase over the number performed in 2007.)  Additionally, 69 State veterans cemeteries funded under the State Cemetery Grants Program are operated in 35 States, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. 
NCA is experiencing an unparalleled expansion that will help to ensure veterans are served with a burial option in a national or State veterans cemetery within a reasonable distance of their home.  The Veterans Millennium Health Care and Benefits Act of 1999 mandated reports that have served as valuable tools for the Department by providing data for use in our planning processes.  Armed with the data generated by these reports, we have been able to plan effectively to meet the burial needs of veterans. 

We seek to maintain the highest level of service to our veterans.  VA’s goal is to increase service delivery by providing more veterans with reasonable access to a burial option (whether for casketed or cremated remains) in a national or State veterans cemetery within 75 miles of their residence.  VA’s current policy is to locate national cemeteries in areas with the largest concentration of unserved veterans.  VA and Congress have determined that new national cemeteries will be established in areas with an unserved veteran population threshold of 170,000 within a 75-mile service radius.  This policy has enabled VA to focus resources on serving areas in which high concentrations of veterans do not have access to a burial option.

Currently, over 83 percent of all veterans in the Nation reside within a 75-mile radius of a national or State veterans cemetery.  NCA intends to increase the percentage of veterans served to 90 percent by FY 2010.  Strategic initiatives are in place to meet this goal.  They are:

  • Establishment of additional national cemeteries in unserved areas;
  • Expansion of existing national cemeteries to provide continued service; and
  • Establishment or expansion of State veterans cemeteries through the State Cemetery Grants Program.

Future Burial Needs, Volume 1 of the Millennium Act report, completed in 2002, is the most recent demographic study to assist the National Cemetery Administration in its long-range planning.  This report assessed the number of additional cemeteries needed to ensure that 90 percent of veterans live within 75 miles of a national or State veterans cemetery, and identified 31 locations with the greatest concentration of unmet need for burial spaces.  In June 2003, VA transmitted to Congress revised veteran population estimates, based on 2000 United States Census data, for all locations identified in the report.  From these two listings, 12 locations were identified as having the greatest number of veterans with unserved burial need; all met VA’s veteran population threshold of 170,000 for planning new national cemeteries.  Public Law 106-117 and Public Law 108-109, in tandem, mandated that NCA construct new national cemeteries in locations identified as having the greatest need.  These locations included Atlanta, Georgia; Detroit, Michigan; Ft. Sill (Oklahoma City), Oklahoma; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Sacramento, California; South Florida (Miami); Bakersfield, California; Birmingham, Alabama; Columbia/Greenville, South Carolina; Jacksonville, Florida; Southeastern Pennsylvania; and Sarasota County, Florida. 

Currently, Colorado has two national cemeteries, Ft. Logan and Ft. Lyon National Cemeteries, and one VA-funded State veterans cemetery, Veterans Memorial Cemetery of Western Colorado in Grand Junction.  The vast majority of veterans who reside in the Colorado Springs area are currently served by either Ft. Logan National Cemetery or Ft. Lyon National Cemetery.  Currently, NCA projects that Ft. Logan National Cemetery will have casket and cremation burial space available until approximately 2019.  Unfortunately, there is no land contiguous to the existing cemetery to purchase for future gravesite development.  Ft. Lyon National Cemetery will have casket and cremation burial space available beyond 2030. 

As I testified this February before the full House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, the Denver and Colorado Springs area currently served by Ft. Logan National Cemetery has a significant number of veterans, well beyond our 170,000 criterion.  It appears that Ft. Logan National Cemetery is one of the next large cemeteries that will reach capacity on its current acreage.  If our FY 2009 budget request is approved, we will be able to undertake a new expedited land acquisition process.  That new process will greatly assist us in providing a successor cemetery to Ft. Logan National Cemetery and ensuring there will not be a lapse in service for the veterans in the Denver/Colorado Springs area. 

The cost of establishing a new cemetery is considerable.  Based on recent experience, the cost for establishing new national cemeteries ranges from $500,000 to $750,000 for environmental compliance requirements; $1 million to $2 million for master planning and design; $1 million to $2 million for construction document preparation; $5 million to $10 million for land acquisition, if required; and $20 million to $30 million for construction.  The average annual cost for operating a new national cemetery ranges from $1 million to $2 million.   Until Ft. Logan National Cemetery can no longer meet the burial needs of the region, all veterans residing within 75 miles are considered served, and VA national cemetery resources will be directed to planning a successor national cemetery.    

The State Cemetery Grants Program, vital to achieving NCA’s burial access goal and permitting NCA to meet the needs of veterans in less populated areas where the concentration of veterans cannot meet NCA’s criterion for the establishment of a national cemetery, can provide additional burial options for Colorado veterans.  Through this program, VA may provide up to 100 percent of the cost of improvements in establishing a State veterans cemetery, including the cost of initial equipment to operate the cemetery.  VA worked with Colorado officials in providing more than $6 million to establish the State veterans cemetery in Grand Junction and would be pleased to assist the State in exploring this option for the Colorado Springs region.

As the National Cemetery Administration proceeds with construction of the last 6 of the 12 new national cemeteries mandated by Congress, and as it continues to provide grants to the States for construction of State veterans cemeteries, we believe it is time to reassess current policies and to think strategically about how we will meet the needs of veterans in the future.  To do this, VA has commissioned an independent program evaluation of all burial benefits.  The evaluation will address issues such as:

  • Assessment of VA’s current access policies to include the 75-mile service area standard;

  • Adequacy of the 170,000 veteran population threshold for planning new national cemeteries; and

  • Factors influencing veterans’ burial choices such as cremation-only burial sites, mausoleums, distance and driving time to a national or State cemetery, family practices, religious affiliation and generational differences.

Following receipt of the report, the Secretary will assess current planning practices and recommend any new strategic goals, policy direction, and planning standards that will position the Department to continue to meet veterans’ burial needs in the future.  We will be pleased to share this program evaluation study with the Congress this summer.  

Thank you, again, for the opportunity to share with you an overview of NCA’s cemetery construction policy and efforts.  I look forward to working with the members of this Subcommittee as we jointly meet the burial needs of the veterans we are trusted to serve.  I would be pleased to answer any questions.