Mr. Kimo S. Hollingsworth
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:
I am pleased to appear today to offer testimony on behalf of American Veterans (AMVETS) regarding the Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration.
The National Cemetery Administration (NCA) is a unique organization within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). While the NCA provides a direct benefit to veterans for service to this nation, the stakeholders of VA burial programs are varied, diverse and many. The NCA transcends the issue of veterans’ benefits - VA and state sponsored VA cemeteries define ’s past, present and future. These final resting places are filled with the history of this great nation and are truly national shrines.
Mr. Chairman, Public Law 106-117 required VA to contract for an independent study on improvements to veterans' cemeteries. Overall, VA provided this Committee three volumes as part of the Study on Improvements to Veterans Cemeteries.
The Future Burial Needs report (volume 1) provided an assessment of the number of additional cemeteries that will be required to ensure that 90 percent of veterans live within 75 miles of a national cemetery beginning in 2005 and projecting out to 2020. In addition, the report identified those areas in the United States with the greatest concentration of veterans whose burial needs are not served by a national cemetery, as well as an estimate of the costs to construct, staff and equip a new cemetery.
The National Shrine Commitment – Condition Facility Assessment report (volume 2) provided the first independent, system-wide comprehensive review of the conditions at 119 national cemeteries. The study reviewed each cemetery and made recommendations for projects based on cemetery age, topography, space and burial options. Approximately 13 cemetery specific elements and over 60 specific features were evaluated for each cemetery. The study identified over 900 projects with an estimated cost of $280 million. Some of these projects have received funding and some have been completed. Many of the projects and repairs will require continued attention as the care and maintenance of cemetery grounds and facilities requires continuing efforts.
The Cemetery Standards of Appearance report (volume 3) addressed the requirements related to the feasibility of establishing standards of appearance for our national cemeteries commensurate with those of the finest cemeteries in the world, as well as the use of upright headstones and flat grave markers in national cemeteries. Overall, this volume did not find any “single cemetery that qualifies for distinction on elements of appearance.” The study also recommended a set of 122 standards for consideration by NCA as criteria by which to judge success.
Mr. Chairman, AMVETS fully supported the Study on Improvements to Veterans Cemeteries and believes it serves as a valuable planning tool for VA and Congress in establishing standards and priorities with regards to VA national cemeteries.
Annual veteran deaths will remain high and annual interments will increase from approximately 97,000 in 2006 to an estimated peak of 115,000 in 2009. If VA cemetery service capabilities are allowed to decline, then veterans and their families will lose access to burial options located within reasonable distances from their homes. AMVETS believes that honoring those who served through the NCA is an important part of our culture, history and national identity. We would encourage Congress to support NCA as it seeks to develop additional national cemeteries, expand existing capabilities, and also encourage individual states to develop state veterans cemeteries through the State Cemetery Grants Program.
AMVETS continues to recommend that Congress establish a five-year, $250 million “National Shrine Initiative” to restore and improve the condition and character of NCA cemeteries. Enacting a five-year program with dedicated funds and an ambitious schedule, the national cemetery system holds the potential to fully serve all veterans and their families with the utmost dignity, respect, and compassion.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my testimony.