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HONORING AMERICA’S FALLEN HEROES: AN UPDATE ON OUR NATIONAL CEMETERIES

 STATEMENT OF 

RAYMOND C. KELLEY, DIRECTOR  

NATIONAL LEGISLATIVE SERVICE  

VETERANS OF FOREIGN WARS OF THE UNITED STATES  

BEFORE THE  

COMMITTEE ON VETERANS’ AFFAIRS  

SUBCOMMITTEE ON DISABILITY ASSISTANCE & MEMORIAL AFFAIRS  

UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES  

WITH RESPECT TO  

HONORING AMERICA’S FALLEN HEROES:  

AN UPDATE ON OUR NATIONAL CEMETERIES  

                                                                             

MR. CHAIRMAN AND MEMBERS OF THIS COMMITTEE:  

On behalf of the more than 2 million members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States and our Auxiliaries, the VFW would like to thank this committee for the opportunity to present our views on our National Cemeteries.    

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) National Cemetery Administration (NCA) currently maintains more than 3 million graves at 131 national cemeteries in 39 states and Puerto Rico. Of these cemeteries, 71 will be open to all interment; 19 will accept only cremated remains and family members of those already interred; and 41 will only perform interments of family members in the same gravesite as a previously deceased family member. The NCA also maintains 33 soldiers’ lots and monument sites. All told, the NCA manages 20,021 acres, half of which are developed.  

Today, there are nearly 22.4 million living veterans who have served our nation as far back as World War II and every conflict and peacetime era since. However, it is estimated that approximately 653,000 veterans died in 2010. VA interred more than 111,000 veterans in 2010 and they expect that number to slowly climb and peak at 116,000 in 2013 and maintain that level through 2015. VA expects to maintain 400,000 more graves during that same period of time.   

The most important obligation of the NCA is to honor the memory of America’s brave men and women who served in the armed forces. Therefore, the purpose of these cemeteries as national shrines is one of the NCA’s top priorities. Many of the individual cemeteries within the system are steeped in history, and the monuments, markers, grounds, and related memorial tributes represent the very foundation of the United States. With this understanding, the grounds, including monuments and individual sites of interment, represent a national treasure that deserves to be protected and cherished.  

The VFW would like to acknowledge the dedication and commitment of the NCA staff who continue to provide the highest quality of service to veterans and their families.  

To keep a finger on the pulse of how well they are serving veterans across the agency, each year VA publishes a Performance and Accountability Report. There are 16 performance measures that fall under NCA. These measures range from how quickly gravesites are marked after interment to how many people would recommend a national cemetery to a veteran in need. More than half of these measures come very close or perform better than their strategic targets.  

There are four of these performance measures that the VFW would like to discuss today. First is accessibility to veterans’ cemeteries. NCA has made a commitment to provide burial options for 94 percent of all veterans living in the United States. They are currently at 89 percent. Their success in providing these options is based on them having a solid metric that account for where there is or will be burial needs and where NCA doesn’t have an accessible cemetery. In FY2012, NCA reduced the veteran population threshold from 170,000 veterans to 80,000 veterans living within a 75 mile radius as a new guideline to establish cemetery placement. This will allow NCA to provide National Cemetery access to an additional 500,000 veterans.  

NCA has also been investing in state cemetery grants program, and between 1998 and 2010, 75 state veterans’ cemeteries have been established. The NCA is currently holding 104 state cemetery grant applications, 61 of which the state or Nation or Tribe has committed their portion of the funds. The NCA will have to invest $152 million in architectural and engineering funds to meet their obligated match for these state cemeteries. This is cost effective way to ensure that areas that don’t contain the threshold of veterans will have burial options. These states have made a commitment to veterans; VA must match that commitment and fund these cemeteries as quickly as possible. The VFW, in partnership with the Independent Budget, is requesting appropriations of $51 million for FY2013 to accommodate the grant program.  

NCA latest strategy to provide access to veteran’s cemeteries is to purchase land from private cemeteries in rural areas where there are less than 25,000 veterans in 75 radius, and who don’t have a national or state cemetery option. This will provide burial options for an estimated 136,000 veterans. There are eight states that currently meet this criteria; Idaho, Montana, Utah, Maine, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Wyoming and Nevada. These are all very positive steps and as they move forward with closing these access gaps, Congress must be prepared to fund these projects.  

The next two performance measures can be combined. The percent of headstones, marker and niche covers that are clean and free of debris and the percent of headstones and marker that are at the proper height and alignment. These two measures represent the aesthetic appearance of our national cemeteries. In 2002, the Independent Study on Improvements to Veterans Cemeteries identified nearly 1,000 deficiencies nationwide that will need to be corrected to reach their goal of improve cemetery appearance. This is not a static number of deficiencies, as some deficiencies are fixed, others, due to climate and time, become in need of correction. A lack of funding has led to this decline in appearance.  

Over the past few years, NCA has done a commendable job of addressing these deficiencies by taking funds from its Operational and Maintenance budget, but targeted funding is the only way NCA will be able to reach its strategic goals.  The goal for these two performance measures are 95 percent and 90 percent, however, they are currently at 82 percent and 73 percent respectively. That is why the VFW, in partnership with the Independent Budget, believes that NCA’s Operational and Maintenance budget should be increased by $20 million per year until their goals are reached. Currently, NCA estimates that $208 million will have to be invested to eliminate the appearance gaps.  

The fourth issue of concern is the capital infrastructure of NCA. The VFW believes NCA is a model administration, not only within VA but throughout the government. However, without proper resources it will continue to fall victim of VA’s glaring concern, deteriorating infrastructure. Just like the rest of VA’s infrastructure, NCA’s buildings are deteriorating. Between 2010 and 2011, NCA’s annual Facilities Condition Assessment (FCA) reported a 10 percent decline, from 84 percent to 74 percent in what is considered “acceptable” conditions for their structures. It will take an investment of more than $62.5 million to fill all the condition gaps that have currently been identified. To continue to put off repairing VA’s infrastructure issues is irresponsible. VA and Congress must make a commitment to improve VA’s infrastructure, and that commitment starts with increased funding.  

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my testimony and I will be happy to answer any question you, or the Committee may have

Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration Fact Sheet (July, 2010). http://www.cem.va.gov/pdf/facts.pdf  

FY 2011 Budget Submission Summary Vol. III. P. 1A-6  

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