Hon. Ander Crenshaw
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you, Ranking Member Titus and the subcommittee for allowing me to testify on behalf of the legislation I have introduced, H.R. 4141, a bill to honor the fallen at national cemeteries.
The veterans of the United States deserve all recognition we can provide for their faithful and dedicated service to our Nation. One way we can recognize these veterans is by allowing veteran organizations to build and maintain facilities on federal property that can be used to honor the fallen and pay tribute to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.
Passage of H.R. 4141 will authorize the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to accept organization’s requests to use National Cemetery land for purposes that support the mission of the VA. The use of this land includes the creation of memorials and pavilions, paid for by private funds that will honor our fallen and past veterans and provide space for their loved ones to gather and reflect.
Until 2012, the VA could enter into Enhanced Use Leases (EULs) that furthered the mission of the Department and enhanced the use of the property in ways that would result in the improvement of medical care and services to veterans in the geographic area. The maximum lease term was 75 years, and the VA was to charge "fair consideration" for the lease, including in-kind payment.
The ability of the VA to offer EULs was changed as part of the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act (P.L. 112-154). In this act, Congress limited the circumstances under which the VA may enter into EULs to "the provision of supportive housing."
H.R. 4141 does not reduce the requirements or authority of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, or the National Cemetery Administration (NCA), to determine the proper way to ensure our veterans are honored. Instead, the legislation provides an additional avenue for the VA to work with groups to honor our veterans in a way that benefits local communities at minimal cost to the federal government.
This issue was brought to my attention by a Jacksonville, Florida, organization that has been working on a project to build a memorial center since the creation of the Jacksonville National Cemetery in 2007. In 2012, after years of hard work navigating the VA and NCA bureaucracy, the leaders of the Jacksonville National Cemetery memorial project were informed that it was no longer possible to obtain an enhanced use lease because the law had changed, and all their effort has been for not.
In North Florida, The Jacksonville National Cemetery Memorial Center would give 7,000 veterans and their families much needed services that are not provided at any of our current national cemeteries. It could include a commemorative hall and archive building. These spaces could provide families of the fallen places to gather and honor their loved ones, and would provide a place for the general public to learn more about those who have fought for our great Nation. The 7,000 veterans I mentioned are in North Florida alone. All over America, communities will come together to honor their fallen sons and daughters. These centers could become places for kindred spirits to gather and recognize the countless men and women who have given so much to their countries and their communities.
One of the most important features of this legislation is that we reinforce the reason these cemeteries exist, and that is to inter and honor our veterans. Future EULs will make it possible for memorials to be built to honor a community’s local heroes, but will be regulated and overseen by the VA and NCA, and ultimately by this subcommittee and others with oversight responsibilities. After all, it is essential that we keep in mind that the cemeteries exist to lay to rest those brave men and women who have put themselves in harm’s way for our Nation.
This legislation provides a way for the American people to honor our veterans as we move past more than a decade of war. It is also a way for communities to build memorial halls and pavilions showing respect for the honor, courage, and commitment of their loved ones. Additionally, the ability of organizations to build memorials will enhance the education of generations to come. One of the best ways that we can pass on a legacy of service and citizenship is by teaching our children and grandchildren about the sacrifices made by their forefathers.
Mr. Chairman, again, thank you and this subcommittee for giving me the opportunity to testify on H.R. 4141. I look forward to discussing these important issues with you, the distinguished members of the committee, and the veteran service organizations who continually work to ensure the American people keep our veterans in the forefront of our minds.