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Major flaws found at some Hawaii veterans cemeteries

Hawaii State Veterans Cemetery (State of Hawaii Office of Veterans' Services/Facebook)

The good news is that the Hawaii State Veterans Cemetery just received a $5.9 million grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs for an expansion that will see 1, 099 pre-placed concrete crypts added behind the administration building on a 1-acre parcel.

The crypts, once in the ground at the Kaneohe cemetery, allow crews to remove just 1-1 /2 feet of earth rather than dig a much deeper grave for each burial.

In October 2020, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-­Hawaii, announced that Kauai Veterans Cemetery was receiving a $5 million grant for 215 of the precast crypts, 407 in-ground grave sites for cremated remains and 640 columbarium niches.

At the same time, the Maui Veterans Cemetery received $1 million from the VA cemetery grant program to fund the construction of 640 columbarium niches, among other projects.

The bad news is that in a June report the VA Office of the Inspector General noted “noncompliance issues ” within the state’s system of eight veterans cemeteries, including “critical deficiencies ” at the Hilo and Makawao facilities.

One grave at the Maui cemetery had a temporary marker for 54 years. In Hilo, 75 markers were not properly installed and “were merely placed on the ground over the gravesite, ” according to the June 24 Inspector General’s report. That meant they “could be easily moved and placed over the wrong gravesite.”

Ron Han, director of the state Office of Veterans’ Services and a retired Air Force colonel, said a complex set of circumstances led to the findings, which pertain to the Maui site and to East Hawaii 1 and East Hawaii 2 in Hilo, which are considered one cemetery.

Although the Office of Veterans’ Services has administrative oversight for the cemeteries, operational control falls to the counties and different departments within them, he said. That means for the Hawaii island and Kauai veterans cemeteries, it’s the parks departments that are managing them, Han said. On Maui it is the Department of Public Works.

The counties are “working as best that they can with what they have to work with, ” Han said. “They never had any formal cemetery training.”

The first National Cemetery Administration base-line compliance report was conducted in 2015 and 2016, he said.

“They’ve been slowly trying to work some of those base-line (issues ) without formalized training, which normally, you would send folks to St. Louis, and there’s a cost factor involved, ” Han said.

“Again, they’ve never failed on interments ; they’ve never failed on providing the honor, dignity and respect to our veterans, ” he said.

At Hilo and at the Maui Veterans Cemetery, the Inspector General team “identified critical deficiencies including a lack of permanent or properly installed grave markers, inaccurate and missing maps of graves, no process for tagging caskets and urns, and inconsistent safety standards, ” according to the June report.

At Hilo a veteran’s spouse had a temporary marker for 19 years. NCA shrine standards require a permanent marker within 60 days of interment. Two veterans had temporary markers for 12 and 13 years.

Regarding the 75 flat markers improperly installed at Hilo, a parks and recreation superintendent said that “the county does not have the staffing to permanently set the markers in the ground, as required by NCA’s installation procedures, because it does not receive money from the state to run the cemetery, ” the report said.

At Makawao some temporary markers had been in place for three, five and 54 years. Two other grave sites still had wooden crosses, rather than VA-issued headstones, from interments in 1963 and 1990.

Although NCA staff identified deficiencies at the two sites in 2015 and 2016, the agency’s improvement and compliance officials “did not sufficiently follow up with cemetery managers to ensure completed action plans were submitted, ” the report states.

Between 2015 and 2020, problems persisted, and NCA did not impose conditions to compel correction, such as withholding future grants.

The VA Office of the Inspector General recommended that NCA work with state officials to assess all eight of the cemeteries. “Oversight of Hawaiian cemeteries needs significant improvement, ” the report said.

Hawaii State Veterans Cemetery in Kaneohe “did very well in the inspection, ” Han said. The West Hawaii State Veterans Cemetery in Kailua-Kona also did well, he said.

To fix the problems, “we’ve been having some high-level meetings ” involving Maj. Gen. Ken Hara, the state adjutant general, with NCA’s undersecretary for memorial affairs, Han said.

The state hopes a mobile training team can come out to conduct training at the Hawaii State Veterans Ceme ­tery. A request will be made to other counties to pay for county personnel involved in veteran cemetery affairs to come to Oahu for the training, Han said.

“Our biggest thing is we have not failed in this mission, knock on wood, with any of our interments and things of that nature, ” Han said. “Now, there are some things that go back (many years ), and there are issues that need to be fixed.”

He added, “We’ll work it as hard as we can with our county counterparts.”

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