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Oldest military cemetery on the West Coast could come under VA care

The Navy transferred the Mare Island Naval Shipyard — including the cemetery — to the city of Vallejo after the shipyard closed in 1996. While volunteers have labored to maintain the site, it has fallen into disrepair in the intervening decades. (Senator Bill Dodd)

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are considering a plan to assign maintenance of the oldest military cemetery on the West Coast to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Mare Island Naval Cemetery is in the San Francisco Bay Area and was neglected after its neighboring shipyard was closed in 1996 through the Base Realignment and Closure Act. From 1858 to 1921, 860 servicemembers and veterans, mostly from the Navy and Marines, were buried at the site.

The cemetery, which includes the graves of three Medal of Honor recipients and veterans from the War of 1812, Civil War and World War I, has since been officially under the care of the City of Vallejo, Calif., which hasn’t had the funds to keep up the grounds.

“The cemetery has since fallen into disrepair and is no longer a fitting tribute to the brave men and women buried there,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., wrote in submitted testimony this week to a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “Gravestones are toppled over, broken or sinking in to the ground. Plants and weeds are overgrown and water is pooling without proper drainage.”

Feinstein sponsored legislation modeled after a House version by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., that would transfer control of the cemetery from the City of Vallejo to the VA’s National Cemetery Administration, or NCA. Thompson, who introduced his bill in April, has more than 60 Republican and Democratic co-sponsors.

A coalition of veterans and volunteers across the country have been pushing for the move since last year, led by retired Navy Capt. Ralph Parrott, 77, a Virginia resident who came across the site during a visit. The cemetery is marked by dead leaves and bark, invasive roots, and neglected pepper and eucalyptus trees. Some of the cemetery’s falling headstones from the 19th century are held up by logs.

“The proposal…is simple,” Chanin Nuntavong, director of Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation at the American Legion, told the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Wednesday during a wide-ranging hearing. “Transfer the cemetery …to the VA’s National Cemetery Administration, whose mission is to ensure that those who have departed us are treated with the respect they deserve. We firmly believe NCA is the best authority and only authority to restore Mare Island Cemetery to its greatness.”

Along with the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Fleet Reserve Association, the Vietnam Veterans of America, AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans and Wounded Warrior Project submitted statements to the committee supporting the plan. The U.S. Navy League has also expressed support.

But as the groups push for the move, the VA is voicing opposition against the proposal. The VA testified there are alternatives for caring for the cemetery other than giving the responsibility to the NCA, which maintains military burial grounds in at least 40 states. The agency said it could also set a precedent for other cities to reject care for such burial grounds.

Paul Lawrence, the VA’s undersecretary for benefits, said the agency is concerned about the conditions at the cemetery and it is working to find ways to address the necessary repairs, which could cost $1.5 million or more.

“VA does not support [the legislation], because the transfer of the Mare Island Naval Cemetery to VA could disrupt efforts currently underway to address the condition of the cemetery, and because acquisition of the cemetery by VA does not align with VA’s current strategic objectives with respect to providing burial access to veterans and their families,” Lawrence wrote in submitted testimony to the committee. The move “sets an unwanted precedent regarding veteran cemeteries in disrepair managed by localities, allowing them to eschew their responsibility to our nation’s heroes.”

The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee will next decide the fate of Feinstein’s legislation, and whether to vote for its consideration on the full Senate floor. Thompson’s legislation has yet to be heard by the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.


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