THE HONORABLE ANTHONY PRINCIPI
SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
BEFORE THE SENATE VETERANS' AFFAIRS COMMITTEE
PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA FIELD HEARING
May 19, 2003
Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman, and thank you for inviting me and my leadership team from the National Cemetery Administration to join you today. I am accompanied by John W. “Jack” Nicholson, VA’s Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs, Mr. Richard “Dick” Wannemacher, Senior Advisor to the Under Secretary, and Mr. Robert Holbrook, the Director of the National Cemetery Administration’s Office of Construction Management. We appreciate the opportunity to learn first hand from the Philadelphia and southeast Pennsylvania area veterans of the importance of VA’s stewardship of our nation’s program to provide veterans with a final honor through burial in a national cemetery.
Your record of strong support for veterans, and for the programs providing veterans with the benefits and services they earned in the defense of our nation, speaks for itself. I applaud your focused and decisive leadership of the Senate’s Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and your vigorous oversight of VA’s administration of the responsibilities entrusted to us by the Congress.
The Congress has enacted broad and sweeping programs to assist veterans in their transition to civilian lives and to provide them with benefits and services after they leave active duty. But one of the most visible and significant honors earned by every man and woman who serves our nation in uniform is the opportunity for perpetual honor through burial in one of the national shrines that comprise our country’s national cemeteries.
I know that every VA employee takes pride in the 120 national cemeteries we operate throughout America. But we are also aware that not all of America’s veterans, or their families, have easy and convenient access to a national cemetery.
The Congress and VA, working together, address that shortfall in two ways. The Congress funds, and VA administers, a program to establish national cemeteries and a program of grants to the states to establish state veterans’ cemeteries. In addition, in the Millennium Act, the Congress directed VA to identify areas of the country where veterans are unserved because they do not have access to a burial option in a national or state veterans cemetery.
VA uses a standard that a burial option within 75 miles meets the 90 percent service level mandated by the Millennium Act. Substantial documentation exists to demonstrate that 80 percent of burials in national cemeteries come from within 75 miles of the cemetery. VA acknowledges that there are a number of factors that could impact
travel to a national cemetery. Some of these are geographic and some reflect the challenges found in densely populated metropolitan areas. I know you are concerned about the time it takes for veterans and their families to travel to a national cemetery, particularly in densely populated areas like Philadelphia. We continue to struggle with how best to factor in travel time and, for this reason, accessibility to a potential site is carefully considered when choosing a new cemetery’s location in order to maximize access for veterans and their families.
VA also determined that a veteran population of 170,000 veterans within a 75-mile service radius would be an appropriate threshold for the establishment of a new national cemetery. This is consistent with decisions relating to the location of recently opened national cemeteries. This threshold is responsive to our commitment to serve as many veterans as possible by placing cemeteries in locations of the greatest population density.
Under these standards, VA previously determined that the national cemeteries in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania and Beverly, New Jersey provided veterans living in southeast Pennsylvania with an appropriate burial option. Veterans living across the border in New Jersey do not contribute to the need for a cemetery in eastern Pennsylvania because they have access to the Brigadier General William C. Doyle Veterans Memorial Cemetery, which is New Jersey’s state veterans cemetery.
VA has reassessed our determination.
We acknowledge that the New Jersey state veterans cemetery is not available to Pennsylvania veterans and that under current conditions the Beverly National Cemetery will become unavailable for new burials much sooner than we had expected. We also determined that Monroe County Pennsylvania should be included in the Philadelphia area service area. These findings, coupled with updated data on veteran demographics, lead to a conclusion that there are 170,000 or more veterans living in southeast Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia, who do not have adequate access to a burial option within 75 miles providing appropriate honor for their service as veterans of the armed forces of the United States. These developments confirm the belief I expressed at the Committee’s February 26 hearing when I stated that there is clearly a need for a national cemetery in the Philadelphia area.
I am therefore, directing my Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs, General Jack Nicholson, to include southeastern Pennsylvania in our listing of locations currently inadequately served and, therefore, appropriate for the construction of a new national cemetery.
As you know, Mister Chairman, that step is a first step. There are many more steps ahead of us before a bugle will first sound the notes of “Taps” over the newly laid grave of a fallen American warrior. I look forward to working with you to smooth the path and clear the obstacles now separating Philadelphia area veterans and their families from that day.
Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you, before the Committee and before the veterans of Pennsylvania. I look forward to your questions.