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 Mr. Todd Kleismit, Director of Community & Government Relations, Ohio Historical Society
Chairman Runyan and members of the Subcommittee:
It is a privilege to be with you today at this important hearing on dignified burials for our military veterans. Thank you for the opportunity. I am an Army veteran of Operation Desert Storm and appreciate the attention you are giving to this topic, which affects a large number of us in Ohio and elsewhere.
I am here today speaking on behalf of the Ohio Historical Society and several other organizations that were negatively impacted by the Department of Veterans Affairs’ recent change that requires that all applications for new veterans’ headstones be the decedent’s next-of-kin. History organizations like mine, veterans’ organizations, high school teachers, genealogists, archivists, county veterans’ organizations, funerary professionals and others were, until recently, able to apply for DVA headstones. Why would all of these groups want to apply for these headstones? Their commitment and patriotism are the ingredients for American-style success stories at a time when our country desperately needs success stories like these.
There are countless unmarked graves where military veterans are buried in our (mostly older) cemeteries across the country. I am aware of research that has been done on veterans as far back as the Revolutionary War who were buried in unmarked graves in Ohio. During the current sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, the Ohio Historical Society and several of our partners across Ohio have been engaged in researching and verifying the remains of Civil War veterans, applying for VA headstones and concluding with a public ceremony to honor those veterans buried, but never fully recognized, in Ohio.
Paul LaRue, a teacher in rural Ohio, has made Ohio’s unmarked graves an annual school research project since 2002. Paul has won several teacher-of-the-year awards because he is an outstanding educator, and because of the unmarked graves projects his students have conducted. Paul has submitted separate testimony complete with photos and case studies, and I would encourage you to read it if you have not already had the opportunity to do so.
I think it is important to consider the context of the life experiences of these people from our past, particularly our Civil War vets. Many of them were poor, ethnic minorities or African-American. Most likely, they are buried in unmarked graves because they did not have the family or the resources for a proper burial in the late 19th century or early 20th century. We’re now about seven generations removed from the Civil War era. Why should we care? These burial projects are the ultimate in civic engagement, applied learning, civics, genealogical research and history lessons all wrapped up together. I have seen at these ceremonies the tears flowing; I have felt the chills when “Taps” is played. “Why should we care?” is probably not the right question. Instead, shouldn’t we be celebrating the fact that 21st century citizens care enough to look back, in the case of Civil War veterans, seven generations to recognize the service of others? The Department of Veterans Affairs’ headstones program is good public policy when it is accessible to the public – many of whom are volunteers who are more than willing and able to conduct the necessary research – and it is one small way that our federal government can work collaboratively with local communities to humanize its work.
We were disappointed, of course, when the Department of Veterans Affairs policy was changed, prescribing that headstone applicants must be the decedent’s next-of-kin. As mentioned earlier, we are about seven generations removed from the Civil War era. It is completely reasonable and appropriate to seek out the veterans’ next-of-kin, whenever possible. Unfortunately, this is seldom possible. When it became evident that our concerns and suggested remedies to this policy were not getting serious consideration by the Department’s leadership, we then communicated this to members of the Ohio congressional delegation. We are very appreciative of the support we’ve received from the Ohio delegation, which is what has led to Congressman Steve Stivers’ legislation, HR 2018, also known as the “Honor Those Who Served Act of 2013.” This legislation would re-open the door to history and military researchers, genealogists, local historians and state veterans agencies to be applicants for these headstones. It would also align the Department’s application policy with the archival records policy at the National Archives and Records Administration for requesting military records, which does not require next-of-kin authorization for records dating back 62 or more years ago.
The Civil War Trust and others have created a website, marktheirgraves.org, that explains the next-of-kin dilemma and has collected more than 2,700 online signatures. I am also including an article that was published online (Cleveland.com) on September 11th that does a great job of capturing the perspective of those of us who have been closed out of the process.
While I take a certain amount of pride in the fact that Ohio has a slightly higher percentage of military veterans than the nation at large, there is no reason to believe this issue isn’t just as important in New Jersey, California, Texas, Florida, Colorado, Nevada and elsewhere. I conclude by thanking you again for the opportunity to be here today to express our concerns about the Department of Veterans Affairs’ next-of-kin application policy and for the opportunity to fix it by approving HR 2018. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have of me.
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