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National Cemeteries Lacking Space

May 24, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ World War II veteran Jay Thompson spent much of his adult life serving his country. In return, all he wants is some respect and a place to be buried among his comrades in Arkansas.

But with space running out at national cemeteries, Thompson doubts there’ll be room for him at the Little Rock National Cemetery. The 130-year-old burial ground probably will be turning people away by 2001.

``What does that mean? That I need to die within the next three years?″ asked Thompson, 79. ``I deserve better than that.″

National cemeteries are running out of space throughout the country, to the chagrin of veterans of World War II and the Korean War. More than half the 115 sites run by the Department of Veterans Affairs are closed to new interments, although most will allow a spouse to be buried in the same plot with a veteran already buried there.

In 1995, veteran deaths totaled 513,000. Last year, they climbed to 535,000. They are expected to peak in 2008 at 620,000, before dropping back to 615,000 in 2010.

National cemeteries offer free burials, headstones and perpetual care to honorably discharged veterans and their dependents. Most veterans choose to be buried there for emotional reasons rather than practical ones.

``When you’re a veteran, you’re united in your efforts in the military, especially in a wartime situation. It’s altogether fitting that you’d be united at your final resting place,″ said Clyde Pinson Sr., a retired Air Force officer who helped persuade the government to build a new national cemetery in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

``The worst to happen to any of us could have happened to all of us. That’s the string that ties us all together, and it doesn’t exist in any other segment of society,″ Pinson said.

The VA is using a three-part plan to deal with the space problem in its cemeteries.

``Our strategy is to build new ones, to expand existing ones where we can and to promote the state cemeteries grant program,″ said Rick Arndt, director of the department’s National Cemetery Service. ``All of these things help give us more burial space for our veterans and their family members.″

About 370,000 gravesites are available in national cemeteries, Arndt said. New facilities could stretch that number to 1.6 million. In addition to Dallas, the government is building three cemeteries in cities with heavy populations of veterans: Chicago, Cleveland and Saratoga, N.Y.

The newest facility, the Tahoma National Cemetery, opened last October just outside Seattle. Projected to make 150-200 burials a month, it made 468 in its first month.

``That figure should be taken as proof of the need for the cemetery,″ said the director, Sandra Noguez. ``They were telling their families, `Hold me until that cemetery opens.‴

The VA has been pushing its state cemetery grants program, in which Washington provides half the funding to open new state-run sites. Fewer than half the states are taking advantage of the 20-year-old program, however, because of the problem of finding startup money, the General Accounting Office, Congress’ investigative branch, reported recently.

When veterans don’t have access to a national cemetery within a ``reasonable distance″ of where they live _ or within 75 miles _ many will choose a private burial ground, the GAO report said.

It’s easier for family that way, National Cemetery Service head Arndt agreed.

When his veteran father passed away several years ago, the closest national cemetery his home in Ann Arbor, Mich., was two hours away by car.

``Which seems reasonable, but it was not really considered by the family, because they wanted something closer,″ Arndt said. ``On Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day or a birthday or Easter, or whenever family and friends want to go out and visit the cemetery of loved ones, that becomes a consideration.″

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