Mr. Jeff Richman
MR. CHAIRMAN AND MEMBERS OF THE SUBCOMMITTEE:
As President John Fitzgerald Kennedy said years ago, “A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces–but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.” That’s the hope – that America honors the service of all of its veterans who lie in unmarked graves by marking those graves.
The Problem: On July 1, 2009, the Department of Veterans Affairs adopted regulations that substantially changed the process of applying for a VA marker and, with the enforcement of that regulation beginning in 2012, has virtually shut that program down. Prior to the enactment of these regulations, a cemetery, a museum, an historian, or anyone else qualified as an applicant for VA markers. However, new regulations changed that: Code of Federal Regulations section 38.632-(1) created an entirely new and unreasonably limited definition of “Applicant: Applicant means the decedent’s next-of-kin (NOK), a person authorized in writing by the NOK, or a personal representative authorized in writing by the decedent to apply for a Government-furnished headstone or marker . . . .”
The Proposed Solution: This regulation, as it applies to veterans who answered the call of their country generations ago, is inappropriately narrow and should be rescinded. In its place, a separate category should be created for applications to mark the unmarked graves of veterans who have been separated from service for 62 years—the time period that the National Archives uses as the appropriate period after which a veteran becomes part of history and his or her records are made public. If a veteran was separated from service more than 62 years ago, anyone—historian, plumber, Congressman, upon proof to the satisfaction of the VA of the veteran’s military service, and with permission of the cemetery where the veteran is interred that a marker may be installed, should be allowed to apply to the VA for a marker. Or, in the alternative, a more restrictive, but still workable rule, would put the line at 62 years after the veteran’s death.
My Background: I am the historian at The Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, a National Historic Landmark and one of America’s first rural cemeteries, where more than half a million individuals are interred. Veterans of every war that America has fought are interred there. I am also on the board of trustees of the North Shore Civil War Roundtable. In 2012, I was the coordinator for New York State Day at Antietam National Battlefield. I am a color bearer for the Civil War Trust and am a member of the Center for Civil War Photography. I am the author or editor of three books, including “Final Camping Ground: Civil War Veterans at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, In Their Own Words.” In 2012, I obtained bronze markers from the VA to mark the unmarked graves of men who died in Mexico during the Mexican War. I created the website marktheirgraves.org to protest the Veteran’s Administration’s overly-restrictive policy concerning who may apply to mark the unmarked grave of a United States veteran.
I very much appreciate this opportunity to submit this statement to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, in conjunction with its hearing, “Focused Issues on Dignified Burials: A National Cemetery Update.”
The Background: Now, as we commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, groups and individuals across the globe (and as far away as Australia) have been identifying Civil War and other veterans who lie in unmarked graves and have been applying to the Veterans Administration for markers for these men.
Since 2002, I have led Green-Wood’s Civil War Project, which has identified 5,000 Civil War veterans, including 85 Confederates, who are interred there. Remarkably, of those 5,000 men, 2,000 were in unmarked graves—nothing bore their name. They were forgotten. But it was certainly not the intention of Congress or the federal government that they be forgotten.
The Veterans Administration’s Headstones and Markers Program is tremendously important. It has been marking the unmarked graves of Civil War veterans, as well as veterans of other eras, since 1879. However, as of mid-2012, that marker program, in effect, has been shut down for many long-forgotten veterans.
Many veterans lie in unmarked graves. By one sample, 40% of Civil War veterans, men who sacrificed so much, had nothing visible at their graves with even their name on it, let alone anything that pays tribute to their service. The VA, for years, has allowed anyone, upon proof of military service, to request a marker, so long as the cemetery where the veteran is interred agrees to allow its installation.
As a result, dedicated volunteer researchers across America and the world—as far away as Australia–have been working diligently to identify veterans who lie in unmarked graves–and to get their graves marked with headstones or bronzes issued by the Veterans Administration.
But, on July 1, 2009, the VA adopted regulations that substantially changed the process for applying for a VA marker and, with the enforcement of that regulation beginning in 2012, has virtually shut that program down. Prior to the enactment of these regulations, a cemetery, a museum, an historian, or anyone else was permitted to apply for markers. However, the new regulations changed that: Code of Federal Regulations section 38.632-(1) created an entirely new and unreasonably limited definition of “Applicant: Applicant means the decedent’s next-of-kin (NOK), a person authorized in writing by the NOK, or a personal representative authorized in writing by the decedent to apply for a Government-furnished headstone or marker . . . .”
The Veterans Administration, and its marker program, did not exist at the time of the Civil War. Therefore, it is unlikely that any Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War, or Civil War veteran had the foresight to appoint a personal representative in writing to apply for a Government-furnished headstone or marker–through a program that did not even exist before many of these vets already were dead! The other two possibilities–next-of-kin or person authorized in writing by the next-of-kin, are very limited. We are, for example, approximately seven generations removed from the Civil War. It is a tremendous amount of work to locate next-of-kin–who would then apply or authorize another, in writing, to apply. And what is the point of doing so? Is a descendant, who never met the veteran, and is seven generations or so removed from that veteran’s life, in any way better situated to carry out the intent of the veteran? It does not seem that that would be the case.
And, it gets even worse. Friends of Cheltenham and Regional Cemeteries in Australia wrote to the Civil War News–and their letter was published in the February/March 2013 edition. They had identified five men who served during the American Civil War and were ultimately interred in Australia. They submitted applications to the VA to finally mark these graves; the applications were rejected because they lacked the approval of a lineal descendant. When the group reported back to the VA that none of these veterans had lineal descendants–some had not had children, the lines of others already had died off — the applications were again rejected because the veteran has no lineal descendant. This requirement of approval from a “direct/lineal descendant” was repeated by the VA in other rejections of applications.
So, here’s the new VA rule, pursuant to CFR section 38.632: you only get a marker if you had children and your children had children, etc., etc. According to the VA’s rule, now a researcher must not only find and identify the veteran and prove his service, but also must find a lineal descendant and get that lineal descendant to complete an application for a marker. The VA further explained in response to the applications submitted from Australia:
The purpose of defining in regulation who may apply for a headstone or marker was to ensure that family members were not left out of the decision-making process. In the past, there have been instances of well-meaning individuals and organizations taking action to mark graves or replace headstones without the knowledge of family members.
The death, burial, headstone, inscription, and gravesite of a loved one is a very personal matter, and although we recognize that many families are grateful for assistance, we also understand that many family members do not want external involvement with decisions regarding VA benefits.
This is the issue that the 2009 regulations sought to address. So, those regulations go on for four pages, detailing how disputes within the veteran’s family are to be resolved.
Yet, in the real world, such disputes over marking the graves of veterans of long ago rarely, if ever, occur. For example, the Green-Wood Civil War Project, which has installed 1,300 gravestones, has had no complaints from descendants upset by the installation of those gravestones. There have been no disputes about “Emblems of belief”–a subject addressed at length in the new regulations—because no such emblems have been requested by Green-Wood from the VA. And, when in 2012 Green-Wood mounted bronze plaques obtained from the VA on granite bases supplied by the cemetery to finally mark the graves of American officers who had given their lives for their country, no one complained.
Bottom line: these changes in the definition of “applicant,” aimed at dealing with family disputes typically involving veterans who have served recently and who have family alive and able to engage on the issue of the wishes of the veteran, should not be applied to veterans who served long ago. It just makes no sense to do so.
The VA set up a committee at least mort than a year ago to review these regulations. But that committee has failed to act and appears to be in no rush to change its ill-conceived regulation. This response, concerning the progress of this committee, was recently received from a VA official: “Memorial Programs Service continues to work with the NCA Legislative and Regulatory Service on updating the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) for the Headstone and Marker Application Process. Unfortunately, this is a long process. I do not have an update for you at this time.”
But the VA already has admitted that its current regulation, so severely restricting who may apply for a marker, is “overrestrictive.” On April 10, 2013, Steve Muro, under secretary for memorial affairs at the Veterans Administration, testifying before a Congressional subcommittee, was questioned by Congressman John Runyan on this issue. Muro responded that “. . . we are actually looking at that reg. And we are going to do some rewrites of it . . . they made it overrestrictive . . . And when we get ready we will put it out for public comment. We will keep the committee in the loop on that to let you know when we get ready to do that.”
The Veterans Administration has realized, after more than a year of enforcing an absurd regulation, that it made a mistake. Yet the VA, as of yet, has offered no solution to this poorly written regulation. As recently as a month ago, Steve Muro wrote to Congressman Steve Israel to explain the next-of-kin requirement: “We realize, however, that the definition may be too limiting, and we are reviewing the current regulation to include the applicant definition.” But, again, nothing has been done to change this requirement that only next-of-kin may apply.
A year ago, the VA, in effect, shut down its program, which has been in existence for more than a century, to mark the graves of veterans whose graves were unmarked. It ended that program by redefining “applicant” for a marker so narrowly that only direct descendants, rather than historians, cemeteries, museums, veterans associations, and concerned researchers, may apply for a marker. This is wrong.
More examples of rejected applications on behalf of veterans who served honorably and sacrificed for their, and our, country:
George J. Weinmann has several ancestors who served in the Civil War. He is a genealogist and historic researcher. He holds office in many patriotic organizations and is the vice president of the Greenpoint Monitor Museum. George has worked as a volunteer for 20 years to identify veterans and to mark their graves with VA headstones. He does this work, as a volunteer, for one simple reason: because marking the graves of men who served and sacrificed for their country is the right thing to do. George recently located the final resting place of Private William Ellingham (1845 – 1888) at Brooklyn’s Evergreens Cemetery. Ellingham served with the 128th New York Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War. At Cedar Creek, Virginia in October 1864, he received lacerations and bruising to his legs when a horse trampled him as his regiment was overrun. George applied for a gravestone to mark this veteran’s grave; the Veterans Administration rejected the application because George, historian and concerned volunteer, was not a direct descendant.
John Wesley Cunningham (1844 – 1899) served as a private in the 176th New York Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War. While in service, he suffered from pulmonary congestion that required repeated hospitalizations. After the war, he suffered from many illnesses, including loss of sight, heart, rheumatism and kidney trouble. George Weinmann found Cunningham’s unmarked grave at Evergreens Cemetery. He applied to the Veterans Administration for a gravestone; that application was summarily rejected by the VA.
Volunteer researchers in Melbourne, Australia, have identified several veterans of America’s Civil War who are interred down under. Charles Blume (1842-1914) served with the 11th Maryland Volunteer Infantry. By the time of his death, his wife was already dead and he apparently had two married daughters living in Germany, but their names are unknown. An application was submitted to the Veterans Administration in the United States to mark his unmarked grave. It was summarily rejected by the VA because the applicant was just a concerned citizen in Australia—not his direct descendant.
Does Charles Blume have a direct descendant alive today? No one knows.
Can that descendant be found? Unlikely.
Would it help to find that descendant? Can’t imagine why it would.
Will he ever have his grave marked? Not unless the VA changes its regulation.
George Stillie (1839-1919) also is interred in an unmarked grave in Melbourne, Australia. He served his country during the Civil War in the United States Navy aboard the USS North Carolina, USS Valley City, USS Fernandina and USS Roebuck. Stillie’s wife died before he did and their only child died in New Zealand in 1912. So, at the time of his death, he had no living lineal descendants. Unless the VA reverses its policy, George Stillie will lie in an unmarked grave for eternity.
Charles Purser, Air Force veteran and Civil War detective, spent 25 years researching Confederates and Union men who are interred in Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, North Carolina. After solving their mysteries one by one, he applied for and received granite gravestones from the Veterans Administration to mark their unmarked graves.
But that was then and this is now: no researcher would be able to get those gravestones today. That’s sad–it is not the way it should be. There are people like Charles Purser all across the world–who want to do their part to mark the graves of Civil War and other veterans. Because it is the right thing to do. Shouldn’t the VA do its part?
William Peter Strickland (1809-1884) served as chaplain of the 48th New York Infantry for two years during the Civil War. Strickland, like many Northern Evangelicals, believed that serving the Union was “the most sacred duty of every liberty-loving American citizen.” He is interred in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery in an unmarked grave.
An application was made to the Veterans Administration for a headstone for him. That application was rejected because the applicant, the cemetery where he is buried, was not next-of-kin. Chaplain Strickland lies today, 150 years after his service to his country, in an unmarked grave. We know who he was. We know that he served his country. Shouldn’t his grave be marked? Shouldn’t his service to his country be honored? We think so!
Major James H. Remington of the 7th Rhode Island Infantry and Corporal Philip Tavernier of the 4th New York Infantry were wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Alvah Schofield was a Navy man. Sergeant David Bell served with the 2nd U.S. Artillery. First Lieutenant James Entwhistle served with the 6th New York Infantry from 1861 to 1863. Private Wales Jennings served for a year with the 15th Connecticut Infantry. Applications, made in June, 2012, on behalf of these men to mark their unmarked graves all were rejected by the Veterans Administration because the applicant, the cemetery where they lie, was not a lineal descendant. They served their country. Shouldn’t their graves be marked? They certainly should.
“All honor to our dead! Let their names be engraved on the tablet of our memories, and may those to whom they were near by the ties of relationship, find consolation in the thought that their sufferings and death were a part of that inestimable price which was paid to secure the national life for the present and the future.”
- Alfred Davenport, Camp and Field Life of the Fifth New York Volunteer Infantry.
Very truly yours,
Jeffrey I. Richman
Green-Wood Cemetery Historian