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

Mr. Chairman, Mr. Ranking Member, and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today on veterans cemeteries and the current activities of the National Cemetery Administration (NCA).

NCA is one of three Administrations within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).  NCA and the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), which is responsible for burial flags and monetary burial benefits, jointly administer the VA’s burial and funeral benefits for veterans.  We, in NCA, have four statutory missions under title 38, United States Code:

  • To provide burial for eligible veterans and their eligible dependents, and to maintain those places of burial as national shrines;
  • To provide Government-furnished headstones and markers for the graves of eligible veterans worldwide;
  • To administer the State Cemetery Grants Program (SCGP), under which NCA provides, as grants, up to 100 percent of the development cost for establishing, expanding and improving veterans cemeteries owned and operated by the States; and
  • To administer the Presidential Memorial Certificate (PMC) program, under which NCA provides to the families and loved ones of honorably discharged, deceased veterans Certificates bearing the signature of the President to commemorate the veterans’ service. 

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 97,000 in FY 2006.  (We expect to perform nearly 105,000 interments in 2008, an 8.3 percent increase over the number performed in 2006.)  NCA processed more than 336,000applications for Government-furnished headstones and markers for the graves of veterans worldwide in FY 2006.  In FY 2006, NCA also issued nearly 406,000 Presidential Memorial Certificates to the families of eligible veterans.  Sixty-five State veterans cemeteries funded under the SCGP are operated in 33 States, Guam and Saipan. 

This is a very important period in NCA history as we experience an unprecedented expansion to match the unprecedented growth in the population of veterans we serve.  We seek to undergo this expansion while maintaining the highest level of service to our veterans in all our program areas.  The results of the reports required by the Veterans Millennium Health Care and Benefits Act of 1999 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, particularly in the areas of meeting the burial needs of veterans and in maintaining our national cemeteries as national shrines.  I appreciate this opportunity to describe some of our current initiatives and several of our major accomplishments.

Meeting the Burial Needs of Veterans

One of VA’s primary missions is to ensure that the burial needs of veterans are met.  In support of this mission, 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.

Annual veteran deaths have increased significantly over the years as World War II and Korean War-era veterans have advanced in age.  Based on the 2000 U.S. Census, there were an estimated 644,000 veteran deaths in FY 2000.  Annual veteran deaths were projected to peak at 688,000 in FY 2006 and then to slowly decline.  However, with the opening of new national cemeteries, annual NCA interments are projected to increase from 97,000 in FY 2006 to 115,000 in FY 2009, an increase of 19 percent. 

We are working diligently to meet the burial needs of individuals who served during previous periods of conflict.  But we are working even harder to do everything possible to accommodate the special needs of family members who have lost a loved one serving overseas in Operation Enduring Freedom or Operation Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF).  As of the end of April 2007, 686 OEF/OIF servicemen and women have been interred in either a VA or a State veterans cemetery.  In addition, 1,347 headstones or markers have been provided for fallen OEF/OIF service members who are buried in private cemeteries.  To honor these brave men and women, we expedite the placement of headstones or markers and, where possible, we accommodate burial requests even in closed national cemeteries if a gravesite is available due to, for example, the reclamation of a previously-obstructed or previously-reserved gravesite.

Of the 125 national cemeteries operated by NCA, 65 cemeteries have gravesites available for the first interment of casketed and cremated remains; 21 cemeteries can accommodate the first interment of cremated remains only (along with the remains of subsequent family members); and the remaining 39 cemeteries can only provide burial for the remains of subsequent family members.        

Our ability to provide reasonable access to a burial option is a critical measure of the effectiveness of our service delivery to veterans and their families.  Currently, over 80 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 SCGP.

The Future Burial Needs report, completed in 2002, is the most recent demographic study completed to assist the National Cemetery Administration in its long range planning.  The 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 directed the Secretary to build six new national cemeteries; six additional locations were identified in Public Law 108-109, the National Cemetery Expansion Act of 2003.  In tandem, then, these statutes mandated that NCA construct 12 new national cemeteries.    

Establishing New National Cemeteries

As required by law, VA is well along in establishing 12 new national cemeteries.  The first six of these new national cemeteries--those mandated by Public Law 106-117--are currently open for burials, providing service to veterans in six geographic areas: Atlanta, Georgia; Detroit, Michigan; Ft. Sill, Oklahoma; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Sacramento, California; and South Florida.  These cemeteries now provide service to two million veterans who had resided in areas not previously served by a national or State veterans cemetery. 

Forearmed with the VA’s veteran population threshold for establishing new cemeteries and the locations recommended by the Future Burial Needs report, Congress enacted the National Cemetery Expansion Act of 2003 (Public Law 108-109) in November 2003.  This legislation directs VA to establish six additional national cemeteries near Bakersfield, California; Birmingham, Alabama; Columbia/Greenville, South Carolina; Jacksonville, Florida; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Sarasota County, Florida.  Funding of $41 million was appropriated in FY 2006 for land acquisition costs, and $12 million was appropriated in FY 2007 for preliminary design work.  Funding of $137 million is included in NCA’s FY 2008 major construction request for the six new cemeteries.   

At this point, we have identified cemetery sites for all six locations specified in Public Law 108-109, and we have taken title to one of these six sites.  We anticipate taking title to the other five sites this year.  Our goal is to have early turnover gravesite sections open in all six new cemeteries by 2009.  NCA has begun opening early turnover “fast track” gravesite sections in new cemeteries to expedite the initiation of burial operations.  We have found that the families of veterans prefer this approach to the alternative of waiting for the construction of the entire first phase of a cemetery to be completed

Expanding and Improving Current National Cemeteries

NCA will continue to expand, and make improvements to, existing national cemeteries by acquiring additional land and completing development projects that make additional gravesites or columbaria available for interments.  We have major and minor construction projects underway to expand the life cycles of several national cemeteries so that they can continue to meet the burial needs of veterans in their geographic regions.  Included in the President’s FY 2008 budget request is a major expansion project at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery for $29.4 million.  Also included is $24.4 million for the minor construction program which will focus primarily on gravesite expansion projects.

We are also looking at our internal processes to ensure that we are maximizing the use of resources and giving veterans ever-improving services.  These activities range from establishing a national training center to prepare the next generation of cemetery directors to restructuring the processing of both interment and headstone and marker applications to better serve the needs of families and funeral directors.  In the area of facilities, we are implementing multiple efficiencies in our cemeteries to maximize the yield of burial spaces from our cemetery properties and, simultaneously, reduce future grounds maintenance costs.  This includes the use of pre-placed graveliners that are installed at the time of burial section’s construction.  Pre-placed graveliners allow for a greater number of gravesites in a section because their installation precludes the need for buffer space between individual burial sites.

We are also responding to changes in burial preferences by veterans and their families by constructing a greater number of columbaria for the interment of cremated remains.  This permits us to increase the number of burials that can be accommodated at a given site, and at the same time, be responsive to demand for this burial option.  The choice of cremation over full-casket burial continues to increase in private and national cemeteries.  The Cremation Association of North America projects that the national cremation rate will increase from 31 percent (in 2004) to 38 percent (in 2010) and to 51 percent (in 2025).  In some States, the projected national average is already exceeded.  In 2004, California had a cremation rate of 51 percent and Florida had a cremation rate of 48 percent.  For fiscal year 2006, NCA’s cremation rate was 40 percent of all interments performed.  We anticipate that this number will continue to increase consistent with the national trend.  

Providing Grants for State Veterans Cemeteries

The State Cemetery Grants Program is 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.   NCA provides funding up to 100 percent of the development and start up equipment costs for State veterans cemetery projects.  The SCGP was first established by Public Law 95-476 in 1978 to complement VA’s network of national cemeteries.  The program received permanent authority in 2003 with the enactment of Public Law 108-183.

The purpose of NCA State cemetery grants is to establish, expand or improve veterans cemeteries that are owned and operated by the States.  Cemeteries established under the grant program must conform to VA-prescribed standards and guidelines for site selection, planning, construction, appearance and operations.  State cemeteries must be operated solely for the interment of service members who die on active duty and veterans, and their spouses, minor children, and disabled adult children.

To date, VA has awarded 153 grants totaling more than $271 million to establish, expand or improve 70 veterans cemeteries in 35 States plus Guam and Saipan.  Sixty-five cemeteries are now operational.  Five new State cemeteries are now under construction.  There is no limit to the number of veterans cemeteries a State may have under the grant program.  Some States, such as Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin, have been pro-active and have opened State veterans cemeteries to coincide with the anticipated closure of nearby VA national cemeteries.  In FY 2006, State veterans cemeteries provided for 22,434 burials.

When the SCGP was established, the program provided grants of only 50 percent of the total cost of the establishment, expansion or improvement of a State veterans cemetery.  Under the original law, the value of the land could be counted toward the State’s matching share, with certain limitations.  The Veterans Benefits Enhancement Act of 1998, Public Law 105-368, authorized NCA to pay up to 100 percent of the development cost of establishing, improving or expanding State veterans cemeteries--but States are now required to furnish the land upon which the cemetery will be built.  In addition, VA may provide funding for the purchase of equipment needed to operate a new State veterans cemetery at the time the cemetery is first established.

Largely in response to this recent legislation, State interest in participating in the SCGP has increased.  Since 2001, 22 new State veterans cemeteries have opened in 17 States.  (With the opening of the Idaho Veterans Cemetery in 2004, there is now a national or State veterans cemetery in each State in the Union.)  In addition, States have submitted 43 “pre-applications” for grant funding, totaling an estimated $170 million, that have been preliminarily approved by VA.  These projects include 21 projects to establish new cemeteries.  Several would be built near major military installations such as Fort Riley, Kansas; Fort Stewart, Georgia; Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri; and Fort Polk, Louisiana.  Others would serve veterans in moderately-sized metropolitan areas such as Des Moines, Iowa and Abilene, Texas.  Many are in rural areas remote from existing national or State veterans cemeteries, such as Missoula, Montana and Alliance, Nebraska. 

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 a burial needs assessment study that will address issues such as:

  • Assessment of VA’s current 75 mile service area standard;

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

  • Role of State cemetery grants in meeting veterans’ burial needs; and

  • Potential use of cremation-only burial sites or mausoleums in meeting veterans’ burial needs and preferences.

We will be pleased to share this needs assessment study report with the Congress as soon as we receive it early next year.

Maintaining National Cemeteries as National Shrines

One of NCA’s statutory mandates is to maintain national cemeteries as national shrines.  A national shrine is a place of dignity, a place that declares to the visitor that each veteran who rests within is honored for his or her service and sacrifice.  Our visitors should depart feeling that the grounds, the gravesites and the environs of the national cemetery are a beautiful and awe-inspiring tribute to those who gave much to preserve our Nation’s freedom and democratic way of life.  As national shrines, VA’s cemeteries serve a purpose that continues long after burials have ceased and visits from immediate families and loved ones have ended.  

National cemeteries carry expectations of appearance that set them apart from their civilian counterparts.  As required by the Veterans Millennium Health Care and Benefits Act, VA contracted for an independent study to identify the repairs needed to ensure a dignified and respectful setting at each national cemetery.  The report, National Shrine Commitment, was delivered to Congress in August 2002.  This report provided the first independent, system-wide, comprehensive assessment of the condition of VA assets at 119 national cemeteries.  It also identified 928 projects needed to repair, alter, or improve existing cemetery elements at a then-estimated cost of $280 million.  Through 2006, NCA had expended $99 million to complete work on 269 of these projects.  We anticipate expending an additional $16 million on such projects in FY 2007.

NCA is making steady progress to address cemetery maintenance and repair needs.  We are using the information in the National Shrine Commitment report to plan and accomplish the repairs needed at each cemetery in addition to performing upgrades by means of normal maintenance operations and as part of larger-scale construction projects.  We are also using data from NCA’s Annual Survey of Satisfaction with National Cemeteries to factor in the viewpoint of veterans and their families when determining project priorities.  Project priorities are revalidated on a semi-annual basis within NCA’s facilities and construction planning process.  I participated in the most recent review just two weeks ago.   

We are addressing long-standing deferred maintenance needs in a variety of ways.  Repair and renovation projects to improve the overall appearance of national cemeteries remain a high priority in allocating operational resources.  These projects include establishing a healthy stand of turf appropriate for the geographic area, renovating gravesites to ensure a level grade and that there are no sunken graves, and realigning and cleaning headstones and markers.  Improvements to cemetery infrastructure, including repairs to buildings, roads, committal shelters, irrigation systems and historic structures, are being addressed through major and minor construction projects.  In addition, cemetery staff members are able to complete some of the identified repairs without resorting to outside contracts. 

NCA has implemented several management initiatives to make the most effective use of existing resources to ensure that national cemeteries are maintained in a manner befitting their status as national shrines.  For example, we have established operational standards and a new accountability system for assessing progress toward achieving our performance goals.  In January 2003, NCA issued a comprehensive set of standards for performance in the key cemetery operational areas of Interments, Grounds Maintenance, Headstones and Markers, Equipment Maintenance, and Facilities Maintenance.  These standards were developed to provide guidance and direction for maintaining national cemeteries as national shrines.  The standards and measures provide quantifiable goals and expectations that are applied at both open and closed national cemeteries   In November 2004 and again in February of this year, we updated our standards and measures based on input received from NCA managers and field operations staff who serve our veterans on the frontline.

NCA has also established a comprehensive program by which the performance of all organizations within NCA is assessed, monitored, and reported.  The Organizational Assessment and Improvement Program (OAI) combines the traditional elements of an inspections program with the proven concepts of organizational excellence.  The program is structured after the quality criteria contained in the VA Carey Performance Excellence program which, in turn, is based on the Malcolm Baldrige criteria for organizational excellence.  The structure assesses organizational leadership, planning, customer-focused quality, performance measurement, human resources, and process management to ensure the effective and efficient delivery of benefits and services to our Nation’s veterans.  The concept incorporates both a focus on operational processes and compliance with internal controls as well as a management program to improve organizational performance.  This internal audit-based program is a combination of regular self-assessment and periodic site visits by teams of NCA employees to validate business and service delivery results and to measure the progress of the national cemetery in meeting national shrine standards of appearance.  OAI allows us to identify projects, and allocate valuable resources, objectively.  The program is in its third year and has become a valuable tool in assessing performance measures at all VA national cemeteries.

Additional NCA Achievements.  NCA will continue to focus on meeting both the short- and long-term burial needs of veterans and fulfilling the public’s expectation of appropriate maintenance standards.  We have undertaken numerous related projects; I would like to share some additional recent successes and accomplishments with you.

Timeliness of Marking Graves in National Cemeteries.  The amount of time it takes to mark the grave with a government-furnished headstone or marker after an interment is important to veterans and their family members.  Consequently, it is important to us. The headstone or marker is a lasting memorial that serves as a focal point not only for present-day survivors but also for future generations. In addition, it often brings a sense of closure to the family to see the grave marked.  We have sought and achieved significant reductions in the time required to mark a grave.  In 2006, 95 percent of graves in national cemeteries were marked within 60 days of interment, a significant improvement over the performance level of 49 percent in 2002.  Today we exceed the goal of 90 percent, and we strive to have the grave marked at the time of interment for OEF/OIF service members.

NCA Training CenterIn order to ensure a high-performing, well-trained workforce, the National Cemetery Administration Training Center was established in 2004.  The Training Center emphasizes core leadership skills and provides the training necessary to assure that high quality service is provided to veterans and their families and that the national cemeteries are maintained as national shrines.  Initially focused on training cemetery directors and assistant directors, the new facility has expanded its classes to train supervisors, equipment operators, grounds keepers, cemetery representatives, and other NCA and State veteran cemetery employees.  As 12 new national cemeteries become operational, the Training Center will ensure consistency in operations throughout all national cemeteries.  It will also ensure that a high-performing workforce and a well-trained staff is on hand in key cemetery positions.  The third class of cemetery director interns will graduate in August 2007.  These new graduates join a national cemetery workforce comprised of more than 70 percent veterans.

NCA Nationwide Scheduling Center.  Located in St. Louis, the NCA Nationwide Scheduling Center was opened in January 2007 to increase efficiencies and expedite eligibility determinations and interment scheduling.  As a one-stop phone-in Center, it ensures consistent eligibility determinations and provides faster interment scheduling for families and funeral homes.  Funeral homes are no longer required to provide a paper application—veteran or dependent information can now be provided via phone or fax. 

Memorial Programs Service Initiatives.  NCA operates an applicant assistance call center here in Washington that provides information on headstone and marker delivery status, as well as general information about Memorial Programs Service benefits.  The call center responds to approximately 1,500 calls weekly.  Additionally, to improve customer service and the efficiency of our headstone and marker program for veterans buried in private cemeteries, NCA implemented a toll-free fax line in 2002 that allows us to accept and transfer applications electronically, as images, into our automated application processing system.  The incoming documents are not printed; they are managed strictly as electronic images.  In FY 2006, we received 37 percent of our applications – about 78,000 per year – in this manner.  The process has been extremely popular with funeral homes and with veterans service organizations that help families apply for headstone or marker benefits. 

Headstone and Marker E-Application Initiative.  This initiative will allow families and their representatives to submit applications for Government headstones and markers using a web-based version of the VA Form 40-1330.  We recently tested this initiative at a conference, and the feedback from the general public was positive.  The e-application will be available to the public within the next two months.

Nationwide Gravesite Locator.  In 2004, NCA launched a Web-based Nationwide Gravesite Locator (NGL) system.  This innovation makes it easier for anyone with Internet access to search for the gravesite locations of deceased family members and friends, and to conduct genealogical research.  The nationwide grave locator currently contains more than six million records.  It provides interment information for veterans and dependents buried in VA’s 125 national cemeteries since the Civil War, and more recent records (1999 to the present) for burials in State veterans cemeteries and Arlington National Cemetery.  Information on headstones and markers sent to private cemeteries for placement on veteran’s graves was recently added to assist families.   The NGL is accessed approximately 1.5 million times annually.

Outreach Activities.  Last week I attended NCA’s first annual vendor conference designed to share information on NCA’s procurement processes.  Approximately 85 vendors, many Service Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Businesses and Veteran-Owned Small Businesses, attended this event which we believe will encourage increased participation by such businesses in our contracting process.  Public outreach activities continue to increase with NCA participation at 10 national conferences last year, including the National Funeral Directors Association conference.  Additionally, I conduct bi-annual meetings with Veterans Service Organization representatives to exchange information and to ensure they are informed of current NCA program initiatives.

Memorial Inventory Project.  Working with Save Outdoor Sculpture! (SOS!), a non-profit organization that uses volunteers to survey public outdoor sculpture nationwide, NCA has developed its first comprehensive inventory of memorials located in VA national cemeteries and in our soldiers’ lots and monument sites.  Since national cemeteries were established in 1862, they have become the sites of memorials erected to recall distinctive heroics, group burials, and related commemorations. The inventory, which identifies over 850 monuments and memorials, will help NCA prioritize conservation needs and develop a maintenance plan for all of its memorials.  Nearly 400 volunteers participated in this inventory project.  The results will be searchable on NCA’s website.  

American Customer Satisfaction Survey.  As part of the 2004 American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) surveys, NCA’s national cemeteries achieved a customer satisfaction rating of 95 out of a possible 100 points.  This is the highest score ever achieved by a Federal agency or private organization participating in the ACSI.  The ACSI study polled next of kin or individuals who had arranged for the interment of a loved one in a VA national cemetery within the past six months to one year.  The outstanding results achieved by NCA are a testament to the dedication and hard work of NCA’s employees as they serve veterans and their families during difficult and emotional times.

Increased Volunteerism.  NCA works closely with the VA’s Voluntary Service Program (VAVS) to increase opportunities for individuals to perform volunteer work at VA national cemeteries.  VAVS coordinates with public and private voluntary service programs to match volunteers with our national cemeteries needs.  Volunteers are an enthusiastic force dedicated to serving veterans. During the past few years, NCA has developed volunteer opportunities ranging from the provision of military funeral honors to supporting historic preservation needs at our cemeteries.  We have also partnered with VBA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program “Coming Home to Work” initiative to place OEF/OIF veterans in vacant positions throughout the NCA system. 

Innovation.   In our search to identify how best to accomplish our mission, NCA has formalized a Research and Development program to encourage and share innovation throughout our system.  Through this program, we have received provisional patents on a Mower/Trimmer that was developed at Calverton National Cemetery and a pivotal casket carrier--a device that allows cemetery staff to maneuver caskets easily between headstones--developed at Rock Island National Cemetery.  Toro is building prototypes of both innovations, based on our designs, for possible commercial application.  Also, we have partnered with the National Park Service to test biological cleaning products on marble headstones.  The goal here is to find products that effectively clean headstones, and are user-friendly, environmentally safe, and cost effective.

Closing

Thank you, again, for the opportunity to share with you an overview of NCA’s current activities.  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.