Colonel George S. Webb, USA (Ret.)
Subcommittee Chairman Hall, Ranking Subcommittee member Lamborn, and distinguished members of the Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee, I am George Webb, Executive Director of the Kansas Commission on Veterans’ Affairs and Chairman of the Memorial Affairs Committee of the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs. On behalf of the President of our National Association, Secretary John Garcia of New Mexico, I thank you for the opportunity to testify and present the views of our state directors of veterans’ affairs from all fifty states and our commonwealths and territories.
We greatly appreciate the leadership of Chairman Filner, Ranking Member Buyer, and the entire membership of the House Veterans Affairs Committee for their past support of building upon the administration’s budget, and we hope that it continues.
Each state secretary or director is appointed by his or her governor, and collectively we are the Nation’s second largest provider of services to veterans. Our state directors spend a total of over $4 billion dollars in state money annually to ensure that veterans receive all benefits due. We run state veterans’ homes, oversee the management of state veteran cemeteries, and employ accredited and trained Veteran Service Officers. While each state structure differs slightly, these are the principal responsibilities of most of us. In some states, the director also oversees the process of job training and employment for veterans. We are on the front line assisting America’s veterans with the benefits they have earned.
The mission of The National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs is to work in collaboration with the federal government as it strives to disseminate information regarding all laws beneficial to veterans, their widows, and their children; to assist veterans and their dependants in the preparation and initiation of claims against the United States by reason of military service; and to assist veterans, widows, and children of veterans in establishing the privileges to which they are entitled. Our Association recognizes the great worth and merit of all existing veterans organizations, and we assert our willingness and determination to cooperate with them.
Today I would like to address the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs regarding state veterans cemeteries. Each state now has a National Cemetery and/or a State Cemetery – or more. Like others, we state directors consider these cemeteries as shrines to veterans who helped preserve our freedom and memorials to those who contributed to the growth, development, and preservation of the United States. This final veteran’s salute honors those who served our grateful Nation, so we state directors are committed to ensuring that all veterans are buried with the respect and dignity they so deserve.
During our Association conference in February, NASDVA members unanimously passed three resolutions: increase the Burial Plot Allowance, increase funding for the State Veterans’ Cemetery Grant Program (SCGP), and establish a State Veterans’ Cemetery Operations Grant Program.
Briefly stated, when a state veterans’ cemetery project is approved, the VA fully funds its construction and initial equipment outlay, and the state then assumes operational costs in perpetuity. Mr. Chairman and Committee members, the average operational cost of interment in a state veterans’ cemetery is $2000, yet the current burial plot allowance of $300 per qualified interment covers only 15% of that cost. NASDVA recommends the Plot Allowance be increased to $1000 in order to offset operational costs borne by the states. The increase should also apply to the plot allowance for veterans’ interments in private cemeteries. Second, the State Veterans Cemetery Grant Program (SCGP) has greatly expanded our ability to provide gravesites for veterans and their eligible family members in areas where national cemeteries cannot fully satisfy burial needs, particularly in rural and remote areas. The program has allowed the number of state cemeteries to grow by nearly 40% over the past five years, with a corresponding increase in interments. Currently, over 40 project pre-applications are pending, totaling $180 million – yet VA funding for these projects has remained flat at $32 million for several years. We ask that SCGP funding be increased to $50M. Third, eligible states receive construction grants for veterans’ cemeteries and a limited burial plot allowance as discussed above. Operational costs for state and national veterans’ cemeteries continue to rise, but once a state establishes a state veterans’ cemetery, there is no further source of federal operational funding. NASDVA recommends the establishment of a federal grant program to assist state veterans’ cemeteries with operational costs.
Last year the Congress authorized veterans’ cemeteries on Native American tribal lands, but funding for this is expected to come from the same flat $32 million appropriated for state veterans’ cemeteries.
In addition, the VA uses a 75-mile radius calculation in determining where a state veterans’ cemetery should be built. States with more traffic congestion would like some consideration by using driving time as an additional determinant.
Finally, our state directors wish to thank the Congress for two bills passed last year. Preventing persons convicted of capital crimes from being eligible for burial in our state cemeteries – as well as national cemeteries – is important. Second, the bill passed in December, which became PL 109-464, is an important step in keeping military funerals dignified and respectful.
Mr. Chairman and distinguished members of the committee, we respect the important work that you have done to improve benefits to veterans who have answered the call to serve our Nation. NASDVA remains dedicated to doing its part, but we urge you to be mindful of the increasing financial challenge that states face, just as you address the fiscal challenge at the federal level. We remain dedicated to our partnership with the VA in the delivery of services and care to our Nation’s veterans. This concludes my statement, and I am ready to answer any questions you may have.