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National Veterans’ Cemeteries Under Pressure to Expand

Audio

Aired 8/6/09

National cemeteries for veterans are under unprecedented pressure to expand. But suitable land in southern California is not easy to come by. Fort Rosecrans is dealing with the growing number of veterans looking for a final resting place.

Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in Point Loma.
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Above: Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in Point Loma.

— National cemeteries for veterans are under unprecedented pressure to expand. But suitable land in Southern California is not easy to come by. Fort Rosecrans is dealing with the growing number of veterans looking for a final resting place.

The peace of Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, with its serene rows of perfectly aligned white headstones stretching across immaculate, green slopes, attracts people like Marilyn Hoffman who comes with her husband to visit her grandparents’ grave.

Marilyn and Alfred Hoffman stand beside the headstones of Mrs Hoffman's grandparents. Her grandfather served in World Wars I and II, and the couple often travels to visit the graves.
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Above: Marilyn and Alfred Hoffman stand beside the headstones of Mrs Hoffman's grandparents. Her grandfather served in World Wars I and II, and the couple often travels to visit the graves.

“My grandfather was in World War I and World War II, and I have a spot over there for both of them," she says. "We come and we leave our flowers and we talk to them, and we tell them they’re not forgotten. We come here about once a month because we enjoy the peace, and you see the trees and the ocean. It’s an awesome area out here to come out and visit.”

And that’s one of the challenges. Fort Rosecrans is a special place located high on Point Loma, overlooking the ocean on one side and San Diego Bay and downtown on the other. It’s the kind of property that isn’t easy to come by anymore.

Cemetery director Kirk Leopard uses a golf cart to travel around the cemetery’s spacious grounds.

“We’re full,” Leopard says as he slides by the rows of headstones. “We have not had an option for casket burials since 1966. We’re expanding the cemetery’s capabilities by building new columbarium walls, and we continue expansions so we can do more cremations here.”

Fort Rosecrans Cemetery director Kirk Leopard stands beside the new columbarium wall which will allow the cemetery to accept cremations for another 10 years.
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Above: Fort Rosecrans Cemetery director Kirk Leopard stands beside the new columbarium wall which will allow the cemetery to accept cremations for another 10 years.

He stops by high walls of marble-fronted columbarium niches, which block the views in some places, and open to reveal breathtaking vistas in others. Leopard says almost 2,000 of the niches have been taken already since they became available last year. He says if he can maximize the remaining space, he might be able to keep Fort Rosecrans open for new interments until 2019.

“Right now we’re at the peak of our burial rates because of our World War II veterans," says Leopard. "They are passing away at a high rate. After that we’re going to be into the Korean War veterans, and we’re already seeing a lot of those the Vietnam War veterans.”

And there’s a cultural shift going on too, Leopard says, because while his parents' generation commonly bought a cemetery plot, most people in his generation have not.

“That’s not something we think of. So I expect to see a much high percentage of veterans being buried in veterans' cemeteries. I expect the demand to increase. Then we’ve got the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve got a lot of veterans who are going to be needing space.”

Right now the closest place for a vet to get a plot for a casket burial is Riverside, which is 100 miles away. Studies done by the VA show families tend not to travel more than 75 miles to visit a loved ones’ grave. However, after almost a decade of environmental reviews, work is about to begin on an annex to Fort Rosecrans. It’s on Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. The location, in the northwest corner of Miramar, won’t have quite the same scenic serenity, but Leopard says it will have some added benefits that some vets will appreciate. “Miramar is right on the flight path,” he says, “so there’ll be flyovers every day,” says Leopard.

Plus many of the 160,000 grave sites will be available for casket burials. Cremation is becoming more popular, but more than half of the veterans who choose to be buried in national cemeteries want a casket.

Sitting in his office overlooking rows of white headstones, Leopard reviews plans for the new annex.

“In the old way of doing business, we had plots 6 feet wide by 10 feet long, and obviously that’s not an effective use of space. What we do now is we have double depth concrete liners installed and they are 3 feet wide by 8 feet long," he says. "That doesn’t seem like a lot, but it almost doubles the burial capacity per acre. We‘re not going to have land to expand forever, so we have to make use of what we have and be good stewards.”

There are about 250,000 veterans living in San Diego County. Anyone who’s spent more then 24 months in military service is entitled to the benefit of a final resting place in a national cemetery.

Marilyn Hoffman’s husband, Alfred, is a veteran of World War Two. His first wife is buried in Fort Rosecrans, so he considers himself lucky -- he’s got a space reserved for both Marilyn and himself right next to her. For him, the choice of being buried in a national cemetery is important.

“I’ll tell you why. You know that somebody’s going to be taking care of your grave and you’ll have a flag or flowers or whatever. So we know where we’re going to be. I can’t say I’m looking forward to it, but we at least we know where we’ll be in the future.”

And the Veterans’ Cemetery Administration knows that in the future, the nation’s wars will inevitably mean a growing responsibility to find the real estate for this benefit, and maintain it “in perpetuity.”

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