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Comments due by Monday 1 December

Today, The Legal Genealogist is asking for our community’s help in speaking out for those who cannot speak for themselves.

This country’s veterans who lie in unmarked graves.

They need our help, and they need it now. We have less than a week to speak out on a federal rule change that is critically needed.

veterans

The VA has long had a program that assists in providing headstones or markers for veterans’ graves. It’s called the Memorial Programs Service, and here’s the way it works:

The Department of Veterans Affairs provides headstones and markers for the graves of veterans anywhere in the world and for eligible dependents of veterans buried in national, state veteran or federal cemeteries. Flat bronze, flat granite, flat marble and upright marble types are available to mark the grave of a veteran or dependent in the style consistent with existing monuments at the place of burial. Niche markers also are available to mark columbaria used for the inurnment of cremated remains.

Headstones and markers are inscribed with the name of the deceased, the years of birth and death, and branch of service. Optional items that also may be inscribed at VA expense are: military grade, rank or rate; war service (such as “World War II”); months and days of birth and death; an emblem reflecting one’s beliefs; valor awards received; and the Purple Heart. Additional items may be inscribed at private expense.

When burial is in a national cemetery, military post or state veterans cemetery, the headstone or marker is ordered through the cemetery, which will place it on the grave. Information regarding style, inscription, shipping and placement can be obtained from the cemetery.

When burial occurs in a cemetery other than a national cemetery or a state veterans cemetery, the headstone or marker must be applied for from VA. It is shipped at government expense to the consignee designated on the application. VA, however, does not pay the cost of placing the headstone or marker on the grave.1

Sounds great, doesn’t it? But there’s a hitch.

A problem surfaced back in 2013 when the Veteran’s Administration started enforcing a rule adopted in 2009 that — for the first time — put limits on who was eligible to ask that a headstone or marker be provided. For decades, any family member, in fact anyone who had information about the burial place of a veteran, could ask that a headstone be erected to honor a veteran’s grave. Prior to 2009, there was no rule requiring that the person asking for the stone have any particular relationship to the deceased veteran.

But in 2009 the rule was changed. The current version of the federal rule requires that there be an application for a headstone or marker by “an applicant,” and it defined that as

the decedent’s next-of-kin (NOK), a person authorized in writing by the NOK, or a personal representative authorized in writing by the decedent to apply for a Government-furnished headstone or marker and, in appropriate instances, a new emblem of belief for inscription on a Government-furnished headstone or marker.2

Now think about that for a moment. Think of all the veterans whose graves today may remain unmarked. Veterans of the Revolutionary War. Of the War of 1812. Of the Mexican War. Think, just as one example, of the case outlined by the Ad Hoc Committee to Mark Their Graves:

William Peter Strickland (1809-1884) served as chaplain of the 48th New York Infantry for two years during the Civil War. Strickland, like many Northern Evangelicals, believed that serving the Union was “the most sacred duty of every liberty-loving American citizen.” He is interred in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery in an unmarked grave.

An application was made to the Veterans Administration for a headstone for him. That application was rejected because the applicant, the cemetery where he is buried, was not next-of-kin. Chaplain Strickland lies today, 150 years after his service to his country, in an unmarked grave.3

Think of every World War I doughboy or World War II soldier or sailor who lies in an unmarked grave but, today, has no remaining next of kin.

Thinking about those people led me, in June of last year, to join hundreds and thousands of others in an email campaign to then-Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, asking him to take action to make it easier to mark the graves of our nation’s unsung heroes. It was what made me work through the Mark Their Graves website to join in sending this message to Washington:

Unfortunately, many of our veterans lie in unmarked graves.

Up until the middle of (2012), the Veterans Administration was doing an excellent job of remedying this wrong—through its Headstones and Markers Program.

… However, in mid-2012, when the Veterans Administration’s Memorial Programs Service began applying a regulation that dated from 2009, redefining “applicant” and making it necessary to locate and gain the approval of the veteran’s next of kin, this program, particularly for veterans who served generations ago, has created an impossible and unnecessary burden, in effect shutting this program down.

We protest this action and ask that you limit this new regulation—making it inapplicable to veterans who served more than 62 years ago—so that the veterans who now lie in unmarked graves can have a thankful nation mark where they lie, in tribute to their service.4

Yesterday, we got the first signal that those efforts may have paid off. But we need one more push — and I ask you to join me in commenting on a proposed change in the rules.

An automated don’t-reply-to-this email I received yesterday tells us that:

Since 2009, VA has received a number of requests from individuals who did not meet the current definition of applicant for headstones or markers. VA has acknowledged concerns that the current regulatory definition of applicant was too restrictive and resulted in identified Veteran gravesites going unmarked. VA shares the goal to ensure appropriate recognition of Veterans who served the United States and proposes to revise the definition of applicant to ease the restrictive aspects of the definition and allow more individuals to apply for headstones or markers, including memorial headstones or markers.

On October 1, 2014, the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) published in the Federal Register, a proposed rule to amend the existing definition of eligible applicants by expanding the types of individuals who may request headstones or markers on behalf of decedents. VA is seeking input from Veterans, family members and other stakeholders regarding a proposed change to its definition of who may apply for a headstone or marker. Those wishing to review and comment on the proposed changes are encouraged to do so by searching for “National Cemetery Administration” or “2900-AO95” at www.regulations.gov. Comments must be received on or before December 1, 2014.5

So… how would the new rule work if adopted? It would expand the definition of eligible applicant for a burial headstone or marker to include the veteran’s “family member, which includes the decedent’s spouse; a child, parent, or sibling of the decedent, whether biological, adopted, or step relation; and any lineal or collateral descendant of the decedent;” and for a memorial headstone or marker to any “member of the decedent’s family, which includes the decedent’s spouse; a child, parent, or sibling of the decedent, whether biological, adopted, or step relation; and any lineal or collateral descendant of the decedent.”6

It would also allow an application to be made by any personal representative, and it defines that to include “individuals who have no familial relationship to the veteran but to whom the responsibility for final disposition of the remains or other related activities have fallen. For example, … groups such as the Missing in America Project have made a significant contribution to finding the unclaimed remains of veterans and ensuring that they are provided with a final resting place. It is a logical step that the same individual who made the burial arrangements should be able to request memorialization as well.”7 And it also allows applications by any congressionally charted Veterans Service Organization — groups like the American Legion, the Disabled American Veterans, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and more.8

It’s not quite as good a rule as it might be; I’d love to see cemeteries, historical societies and genealogical societies included among those who can make application for the markers. But it’s a whole lot better than just the next of kin, and it’s hard to imagine a cemetery or historical or genealogical society worth its salt that couldn’t enlist the local VFW post in seeing to it that a veteran’s grave was properly marked.

So please take a moment over these next few days — comments are due by 1 December — and comment on the proposed rule. Click through to this page at Regulations.gov, read the proposal and then click on the blue Comment Now at the upper right hand side (see where the arrow is pointing in the image above).

Tell the VA it’s doing the right thing — that expanding the list of those eligible to apply to mark a veteran’s grave allows us all a better chance to honor the unhonored.

If everyone pitches in here, maybe we can win one this time.


SOURCES

  1. Headstones and Markers,” Military.com (http://www.military.com/ : accessed 25 Nov 2014).
  2. 38 CFR 38.632 (2009).
  3. Mark Their Graves ( http://www.marktheirgraves.org/: accessed 25 Nov 2014).
  4. Petition, Mark Their Graves ( : accessed 25 Nov 2014).
  5. Email, National Cemetery Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs, to Judy G. Russell, 25 Nov 2014.
  6. AO95 – Proposed Rule – Applicants for VA Memorialization Benefits,” Department of Veterans Affairs, Regulations.gov (http://www.regulations.gov : accessed 25 Nov 2014).
  7. Ibid.
  8. See “Congressionally-Chartered Veterans Service Organizations (By Date of Charter),” House Committee on Veterans Affairs (http://veterans.house.gov/ : accessed 25 Nov 2014).
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