Thursday, September 24, 2009

Not all that as a critic






"From the Revolutionary War to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, American service member have given their lives for this country," declared US House Rep John Hall as he brought the US House Veterans Committee's Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs to order this morning. Among the problems Hall cited is that there's no space for needed cemeteries. At least 31 more cemeteries are estimated to be needed and 2015 is the soonest that for a location "that will meet the current criteria for the establishment of a new national cemetery." The requirement is that a region's population have at least 170,000 veterans before it can have a national cemetery. Subcommittee Chair Hall also noted that the VA's $300 for a funeral plot and $300 for burial does not begin to cover the costs.

There were three panels. The first panel included former US Senator and Vietnam veteran Max Cleland who is the Secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission, Arlington National Cemetery's John C. Metzler , DoD's Lynn Heirakuji and Dept of Interior's Katherine Stevenson. The second panel was composed of American Veterans' Raymond C. Kelley, Ft Logan National Cemetery's John Nicolai, Gold Star Wives of America's Vivianne Cisneros Wersel, Disabled American Veterans John Wilson and National Funeral Directors Association's Lesley Witter. The third panel was the VA's Steve L. Muro (with VA's Ronald Walters). We'll cover the strongest moment of the hearing.

During the first panel, US House Rep Steve Buyer opened with a visual display showing various cemeteries. Normandy American Cemetery, Arlington National Cemetery, Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. These were "beautiful" and up to standard. He then went to a national cemetery run by the Department of the Interior, Andersonville National Cemetery. Pointing to the dingy, dirty headstones, "This should not matter that this is the marker of someone who died in the Civil War. It shouldn't matter. It shouldn't matter if it was someone who died in the Revolution or someone who died that's interned in Mexico City." He then "So when you said in your testimony that you gently, finely clean the markers, well that's going to take you a lot of time. This is not a standard for which we should have in America. I think Mr. Cleland, if you saw that in one of yours, you would just freak out." Buyer explained that he complained about the weeds and the result was they pulled out everything, including the grass.

US House Rep Steve Buyer: Let me ask you something, Ms. Stevenson, tell the committee here, what are your needs? What do you believe your needs are to raise the standard within the Dept of Interior?

Katherine Stevenson: The report that I just mentioned [in opening statement] will have some recommendations for funding and it will have recommendations for increased treatment of, uh, cleaning and so on.

US House Rep Steve Buyer: What are your goals?

Katherine Stevenson: Our goals are the same as the goals set by the National Cemetery Administration. We have the same three standards, height and alignment, clean stones and level grave sides as they do.

US House Rep Steve Buyer: How many cemeteries did you go to in the review?

Katherine Stevenson: Four.

US House Rep Steve Buyer: How many do you have in your system?

Katherine Stevenson: Fourteen.

US House Rep Steve Buyer: Why wouldn't you go to all fourteen cemeteries?

Katherine Stevenson: We wanted to do it as quickly as we could and get some sense of uh what was going on -- in the ones that you mentioned, for example, Andersonville was one of them. So we took ones that were fairly close to Andersonville.

US House Rep Steve Buyer: Did you go to -- what are the four that you went to?

Katherine Stevenson: Andersonville, Andrew Johnson, Fort Donaldson and Stones River.

US House Rep Steve Buyer: Andrew Johnson? Is that the -- that's the one in Tennessee? That's the one in Tennessee? [Stevenson nods.] Have you sent inquiries out to the other ten?

Katherine Stevenson: No, sir. No more than usual. I mean, we-we talk to them a fair amount.

US House Rep Steve Buyer: Alright. You've got fourteen. Alright, there's a disconnect here. I'm not going -- I'm not in a fight with you here, okay? I want us to raise the standards, so when this review -- this report -- comes out, I'm going through it.

Katherine Stevenson: Good.

US House Rep Steve Buyer: The light's on you, okay? So what I -- what I -- My immediate sense here is is when I think the Secretary tells me he's going to do a review, that it's going to be of all 14 cemeteries. I don't want something done quick and easy. Alright? I want this to be done correctly. And if your sense is and your counsel to us is that four is going to be sufficient well [shrugs] that's fine but is what you're asking me is, "Steve, just pause here. When you get the report, you're going to be satisfied?"

Katherine Stevenson: [speaking very slowly] You know, you can choose a photograph in any of these cemeteries and [picking up speed] any, I bet, of the veteran cemeteries that are managed by other people and we will have some scenes that are perfect and some scenes that are not. And I know that that's true in the cemeteries that we manage. We are trying to do our very best for the veterans and for their burial places.

US House Rep Steve Buyer: Alright. Well your standard of very best doesn't meet the standards established by others. So we're going to take your standard of very best and we're going to raise it. We're going to raise your very best even higher. Okay? And, uh, I didn't go out and selectively choose to find what I think would be the worst photograph. It's easy to go out there and take that photo. And I was extremely upset the day I saw a veteran being buried in a cemetery like I saw. It's one thing -- it's one thing, you know, we've all been to cemeteries and we've seen the conditions of some of them but to think that this was an active cemetery under the stewardship of the federal government was extremely disheartening. I-I-I'm going to pause here, Mr. Chairman, give it back to you under the time.

Subcommittee Chair John Hall asked when the report would be finished and Stevenson stated it was complete but "it just needs to go through formal review." From the third panel, we'll note two exchanges. First up, an informative exchange between US House Rep Deborah Halvorson and the VA's Acting Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs, National Cemetery Administration Steve L. Muro covering outsourcing issues and homeless veterans.

US House Rep Deborah Halvorson: I'm really concerned with something that just came up with the fact of this outsourcing of jobs. Can you explain to me what's happening with outsourcing of our jobs? Are they truly being taken away from veterans and going to other companies and not our veterans?

Steve Muro: Well, let me explain what we've done. As we open new national cemeteries, we keep certain jobs in-house: the internments, the rep work. And we do the headstone and mowing, we contract that out. We have increased FTEE [Full Time Equivalent Employee] in our system, we're up to 1600. So we're doing in-house work and some contract -- same thing at some of our closed cemeteries where it is more difficult to get employment. The gentleman spoke about south Florida, it actually took us two years to fully staff that cemetery with-with veterans, those that were willing to apply. We had a high turnover there because of the cost of living. So in many areas, the cost of living has forced us to look at other ways to get the work done. But we still, each year we've increased our FTEE, all our new cemeteries open with approximately 15 FTEE to manage the cemetery so we are keeping the-the internment work in-house, we're keeping the rep work and all of the public affairs type work in-house. The mowing, the trimming and the setting of headstones, we do contract out.

US House Rep Deborah Halvorson: Well because we're doing everything in our power to create opportunities for veterans, I don't want to be embarrassed when I hear that veterans' cemeteries and groups like yourselves are going outside of our veterans groups. So --

Steve Muro: And those -- those that we're hiring are disabled veterans companies. We are hiring with disabled veterans companies.
US House Rep Deborah Halvorson: Because?

Steve Muro: So we are giving the work to veterans. We work with VBA [Veterans Business Association] to hire OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom], OAFs [Operation Afghanistan Freedom] instead of going through different training programs. Each network -- we have five networks throughout the system -- are required this year and last year to hire 5 OAF and OIFs. So we are hiring vets. You know, 70% of our employees are veterans.

US House Rep Deborah Halvorson: Okay, I just want to make sure that that's happening. I mean, as you know, we're doing everything to make sure that, because we're having more and more veterans come back, and I just want assurances that we're doing everything we can to make sure that we're hiring veterans, we're giving incentives to hiring veterans. I don't want to be talking about our Veterans Administration, of all people, aren't doing what -- We can talk all the time, but until we practice what we preach, you know, that's not doing us any good.

Steve Muro: And I understand that and we are.

US House Rep Deborah Halvorson: Great. One last question is one thing that I know that we're interested in exploring and something that the Secretary is very interested in, you know, is homelessness among our veterans. But also where you're concerned with, can you take us through some of the situations. What happens with burial issues with regards to those who are homeless veterans and what happens when a veteran doesn't have any family members? How do you deal with that situation?

Steve Muro: Our cemetery directors work closely with the different coroners' offices and they -- we try to determine eligibility, we work with the regional office to determine eligibility so that if we do find that they are a vet -- those that they find on the street, the homeless -- so that we can ensure that they can be buried in a national cemetery.

US House Rep Deborah Halvorson: How do you know that they're a veteran if they don't have --

Steve Muro: We get finger prints. So long as they haven't cremated, we can get finger prints. And as long as they have finger prints, we go to FBI with the finger prints and we can find files. And we've been really successful throughout the country doing that. Working with the coroner's office.

In the final minutes of the hearing, Subcommittee Chair John Hall would follow up to ask if Muro was stating that the contractors hired were all veterans and whether they used veteran workers? Muro replied that they are all veteran contractors and they are encouraged to use veteran workers. Next up, music. If a veteran's getting a burial, he or she is entitled to the send off expected. Instead, many are being buried without bugles.

Subcommittee Chair John Hall: I just wanted to ask you, Secretary Muro, in the -- continuing and following up on a comment that was made by the Ranking Member of the full committee, Mr. Buyer, when he was here earlier, talking about artificial or digital bugle machines. As the token musician on the panel, I [laughter] -- a French horn player and a decent, at one time anyway, a decent trumpeter and bugler, there are many very accomplished high school band bugle players -- or trumpet players who can play a bugle just as well -- does the, uh, is this in your purview? Is this something that the NCA in the process of working with the families handles? I just came from a 9-11 ceremony -- as did many of us recently -- where there were two buglers calling-answering backing and forth to each other, playing real bugles and it's a very moving moment with the Color Guard standing attention and the crowd and survivors in our -- in my, one of my five counties, 44 family survivors of 9-11 victims and I can only imagine how much less moving the moment would have been if someone had pushed a button on the tape or a CD, you know, had an artificial reproduction. So I'm just curious, have you contacted, do you work with local schools or find people who actually play the instrument?

Steve Muro: Yes, well, couple of things we're doing to get real buglers at the cementeries for not only services but for ceremonies. We worked closely the last three years with Taps Across America, Bugles Across America, to get more interest in buglers to come and volunteer. We work with the local school districts, the ROTC that may have buglers and we try to get them scheduled for our services so that we can utilize them to support the families. The artificial bugle? It's actually a real bugle with -- with an electronic device that goes in, instead of looking like a --

Subcommittee Chair John Hall: That's not a real bugle, I'm sorry.

Steve Muro: You're right. But it is better than the boom box.

Subcommittee Chair John Hall: Well it looks better. It's a boom box that's shaped like a bugle.

Steve Muro: But we are trying to get volunteers.

Subcommittee Chair John Hall: I understand, sir.

Steve Muro: And there are those that charge the families, unfortunately. You see the papers, people advertise, "I can do a bugle for this amount." We don't encourage it, but we can't stop the families from hiring them. So we try to work with the VSOs and the schools --

Subcommittee Chair John Hall: I appreicate that, sir. I used to get paid to pay organ at Mass when I was a teenager but it didn't mean that maybe I shouldn't have volunteered but they offered and I was mowing lawns and doing other things to. But anyway.

A funeral is not a spur of the moment elopement in Vegas. While you might endure a recording of a wedding march being played at your elopement ceremony, a burial isn't last minute and there's no excuse for using a recording. With the bases across the US, all the bases, there's no reason a veteran's funeral on a national cemetery or a private ceremony can't be supplied with a bugle player. High school (and middle school players as well) are very talented and can be used in a pinch but why, when the military has countless bugle players, they're not dispatching them automatically to ceremonies is a question that needs to be asked. And the word for using an 'electronic' bugle is tacky. It's tacky and it's beneath the service that's been given by the veteran. It'd be cheaper to use flag decals on the coffins instead of cloth ones. But the point of veterans funerals isn't do do them on the cheap. Survivors shouldn't have to hire a musician for a military funeral nor should they have to endure canned music.

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