Monday, May 31, 2010
Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery in Point Loma can no longer offer full burial services to service men and women, and the closest national cemetery is in Riverside County. A new 313-acre national cemetery near MCAS Miramar will begin burial operations this summer, at the same time construction continues on the first phase of the cemetery-columbarium there, which will be completed in 2011.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. As we've been discussing so far this hour, the Memorial Day weekend has become the unofficial start of summer for Americans. But for many, especially in places like San Diego, the deeper meaning of this holiday is a sacred trust. This is the day we set aside to honor those who gave their lives serving this country in the nation's armed forces. Many memorials are planned around San Diego today: a remembrance ceremony is at the Veterans Museum in Balboa Park, ceremonies in Lakeside, at the Midway Museum. From North County to the South Bay, fallen veterans will be honored with speeches and ceremonies. But of all the events planned today, perhaps none exemplifies the meaning of Memorial Day more than the annual Day of Remembrance ceremony at the Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery in Point Loma. Rows of identical white headstones reach out toward the bay and ocean at Ft. Rosecrans, a sight which says much more than words about both loss and reverence. Another national cemetery has been dedicated in San Diego, soon to open at Miramar. Here to tell us about this new national site and to share his thoughts on this Memorial Day is my guest, Steve Muro. He’s Undersecretary of the Veterans Administration for Memorial Affairs. And, Mr. Muro, welcome to These Days.
STEVE MURO (Undersecretary of theVeterans Administration, Memorial Affairs): Oh, thank you. Thank you and good morning. And thank you for the opportunity to talk about Ft. Rosecrans and our new national cemetery at Miramar.
CAVANAUGH: And I’d like to invite our audience to join the conversation. Have you attended Memorial Day services at Ft. Rosecrans? What purpose do you think is served for all of us by our national cemeteries? Tell us your thoughts about honoring veterans this Memorial Day. You can give us a call at 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Mr. Muro, I understand that right now you’re in Riverside at the national cemetery there. Tell us what’s going on there today.
MURO: Well, they’re getting ready for their Memorial Day program here, as most of our national cemeteries throughout the United States – We have 131 national cemeteries that will have Memorial Day services this weekend. Some start on Saturday, some did it on Sunday, depending on the community they’re in. And here at Riverside, we’re – they’re gathering up. The people are coming in the gates, the visitors, those that want to participate in the program. We anticipate a large group of veterans and community to show up for this program as they have in the past, Riverside being the most active cemetery in the National Cemetery Administration, which did over 8,000 burials last year here at the cemetery. Throughout the national cemetery system, last year we did over 106,000 burials of veterans, their dependents and spouses throughout our system. We also help the states build national cemeteries and California has one up in Redding, California. Throughout all the states that have cemeteries, 74 cemeteries that are managed by the states, they did over 27,000 burials last year. So they’ll also have Memorial Day programs to honor the veterans and to memorialize those that defended our nation, wore the uniform of one of the branches of service, and defended this nation since the Civil War. And one thing a lot of people don’t know but today the Veterans Administration still pays benefits to two individuals that have – were receiving survivors’ benefits from their loved one that served in the Civil War. So we continue to pay benefits all the way through today’s conflict and so it’s an honor to be here at Riverside. Yesterday, I was at Bakersfield National Cemetery for their first Memorial Day as a guest speaker, so it’s an honor to be in Southern California to be able to talk about our national cemeteries and speak to those that come to the – as audience and thank our veterans and honor their service to our nation.
MURO: And I know that in San Diego, they’re getting ready for their program.
CAVANAUGH: Absolutely. You know, as I said, the setting of Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery here in San Diego is especially memorable. Tell us something about the history of Ft. Rosecrans.
MURO: Well, the cemetery, excuse me, the cemetery dates back to 1846, you know, during the Mexican War, and it comes all the way up through today. It became a national cemetery in 1934, October of 1934. The cemetery has 23 Medal of Honor recipients that are buried there and today it is in our top ten of burial. Last year, it did close to 3,000 services there, most of them being inurnments at the columbarium. The cemetery is at a beautiful site and we’re continuing to keep it open. We’re working on the new cemetery, which is another beautiful site.
MURO: And the site of the original movie “Top Gun,” the Miramar National Cemetery, which we dedicated this past summer and we’re looking forward to opening soon to be able to provide full burial option. Rosecrans closed to first casket internment in 1966 and so with this new Miramar, we’ll be able to provide casket burials for those veterans and their families that live in the San Diego area or the Southern California area that want to go down to San Diego because right now they would have to come up to Riverside…
MURO: …if they want to be interred in a national cemetery.
CAVANAUGH: Now just sticking with the history of Ft. Rosecrans for a moment longer, some of the burials in the cemetery actually go back to California’s early days. Weren’t victims of the Battle of San Pasqual actually buried there?
MURO: Yes, they were. They were actually buried at the battlefields and then later on they were relocated to Ft. Rosecrans. And, actually, in 1874, the remains were brought over to what at that time was San Diego Military Reservation and which then became Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery.
CAVANAUGH: When and why did Ft. Rosecrans become a national cemetery?
MURO: It became national cemetery in October of 1934. At that time, Congress passed legislation which increased the eligibility for those to be buried in national cemeteries, opened up the eligibility. In the past, the older post cemeteries, you either had to be from that post or have died on active duty. Today, from that point forward, you don’t have to die on active duty and you don’t have to be a retiree to be buried in a national cemetery, you just have to serve on active duty other than for training. The other cavanat (sic) that has changed since then is also anyone that is a retired reservist that did not have active duty other than for training, if they are eligible for retirement pay, they are now eligible for burial. So the law has changed, legislation has changed the laws and opened up eligibility to more and more veterans and their dependants and spouses.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Steve Muro. He is Undersecretary of the Veterans Administration for Memorial Affairs, and we are talking about burials at Fr. Rosecrans, about a new burial site for veterans that is opening here in San Diego, and we’re talking about honoring the veterans and members of the armed forces who gave their lives serving this country. How do we honor them today? Tell us your thoughts on honoring veterans this Memorial Day, your thoughts on Ft. Rosecrans. Give us a call at 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Now, Mr. Muro, you were telling us about the current status of Ft. Rosecrans. There is – there are no actual burials going on there anymore? Or correct me if I’m wrong.
MURO: There is internments going on at the cemetery. Last year, they did close to 3,000. We believe that this year they’ll do 3,000. Most of them are inurnments in our columbarium, that’s cremated remains being inurned in a columbarium wall. We do have second internments where they already have a loved one buried here at the cemetery and so that would be a casket burial. So they are doing – they are conducting internments daily. They’re actually fairly busy. They’re in our top ten of our national cemeteries through – of the 131 national cemeteries.
CAVANAUGH: I think that it is not very well known actually who is eligible to be buried at a national cemetery. Perhaps you could tell us that.
MURO: Sure. Anyone who is active duty and dies under honorable conditions is eligible for – to be buried in any national cemetery. Anyone that served on active duty for other than training for – before 1980 one day was enough, after 1980 it’s required to serve 24 months with honorable and – so that they can be eligible. The dependents under 21 unless they’re going to an accredited college, 23, or if they became mentally or physically disabled before 21 or 23, and spouses, anyone that has anything other than a dishonorable may be eligible for burial, and those we’d have to adjudicate to see if they are eligible to be buried. So anyone that’s served our nation in a military uniform would be eligible if they served active duty.
CAVANAUGH: How many national cemeteries are there in the United States? Is there one in every state?
MURO: Actually, there’s not one in every state. There’s 131 that we oversee, the Department of Veterans Affairs. Park Service, they manage 12 and they have 2 that are active. And DOD manages Arlington. Of the 131 that we oversee and manage, they’re not in every state of the union and that’s why we have what we call a state grants program and we fund 100% of the start-up fee for a state run cemetery. And because of the state grants, we do have either a state or national cemetery in every state of the union and this year we will reach our target goal of serving 90% of the veterans with a burial option within 75 miles of their residence.
CAVANAUGH: I see. Now as – We’re speaking on Memorial Day and, as you said, there are beautiful ceremonies of remembrance at national cemeteries, including Ft. Rosecrans, all over the country today and, of course, there’s the playing of “Taps” and there are speeches and there are – but I’m wondering, does every burial at a national cemetery include the playing of “Taps” and that full ceremony?
MURO: At most of our national cemeteries, we provide what we call military honors through volunteers that actually come out to the cemetery and volunteer. DOD does provide honor details, normally up to two persons unless it’s an active duty. Here in California, the National Guard has posted individual honor details at our cemeteries so that they can provide honors on a day-to-day basis but at many of our cemeteries our honor detail are actually volunteers that have gotten together and they come out and they have the volley and they present the flag and they play “Taps.” “Taps” is the hardest thing to get a live “Taps” to – because buglers are – there’s not a lot of buglers out there.
MURO: We are always trying to get them to come volunteer so that we can provide that service at all our services of the veteran.
CAVANAUGH: That’s very interesting. I didn’t know that. So volunteers are responsible for that in many locations across the country.
MURO: Well, they’re not responsible but they assist us.
CAVANAUGH: Yes. Right.
MURO: Right. So that we can serve that – Originally, it started at Ft. Snelling National Cemetery. They’ve had a rifle detail there for over 30 years and have provided service and then from there all the other national cemeteries have built from that. In many of our national cemeteries, we have them.
CAVANAUGH: I want to remind our listeners that we are taking your calls if you’d like to share your thoughts on this Memorial Day about what national cemeteries mean to you, what it feels like when you travel through Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery, what kind of thoughts that engenders in your mind. Any idea – any thoughts that you’d like to share with us today. 1-888-895-5727. Tom is on the line from San Diego. Good morning, Tom, and welcome to These Days.
TOM (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. How are you this morning? And, well, we have to honor our dead because they sacrificed everything so we have the freedoms we have today.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you. Thank you for that. And…
TOM: And I was listening to a country western station here in San Diego and it was a Lowe’s commercial and the young fellow in the commercial says it’s about fun and getting things done. You know, I just about rolled over. I thought this – what is he? Crazy? I mean, it’s not about fun and getting things done, it’s about respect for our dead. And I just couldn’t believe that that commercial is put on the air. Okay?
CAVANAUGH: Well, Tom, thank you for calling in very much. I appreciate it. This day, Mr. Muro, has a sort of a schizophrenic quality to it. It’s – people like to get away, they like to get to the beaches here in San Diego. Do you think, however, though, that many Americans do cherish this day and celebrate it accordingly?
MURO: Oh, yes. With the amount of people that come out to our national cemeteries to observe Memorial Day, it is obvious that the American public do. And those that get to go to the beaches and get to go to the barbeques, some of them come to our program before and then go. The ones that don’t, that want to get there early, they have the veterans to thank. It’s the veterans that gave them that freedom to be able to do and make the choice of whether to show up at a national cemetery and observe Memorial Day or even at a private cemetery that is having a Memorial Day service or go right to the beach or right to the picnic grounds. So I think that everybody in some way knows that if it wasn’t for the veterans, we wouldn’t have the United States that we have today.
CAVANAUGH: In traveling through Ft. Rosecrans, you’re struck by the sight, as I said, the headstones rolling down to the bay and the ocean, and it’s a very sobering sight. Why was it decided that all the headstones be exactly alike? And is it that way in all of our national cemeteries?
MURO: It – Pretty much it is, yes. There – The difference is some of our cemeteries were opened with flat markers and some were opened with uprights, but if they had flats, they were all flats. And it’s basically looking back at military history, everything in alignment, everything in the same uniformity so that it looks the same, everyone’s created equal in the military so that’s what they have and the headstones are straight and aligned. I know that if people go out there today to Rosecrans, they’ll see that we’re doing some raising and realigning and we’re repairing some sunken graves. Gravesites do sink over time and so we’re making sure we get it right. One of the things we’ve done at Ft. Rosecrans recently is we’ve actually taken some best practices from the Battle Monuments Commission that have our cemeteries overseas, and we brought a foundation into the cemetery where we’re actually putting the headstones in a containment box that’s in a concrete foundation so that they don’t sink in the future so they stay standing tall and at attention.
CAVANAUGH: And how are our national cemeteries maintained? I know that, as I say, anybody driving along Ft. Rosecrans, if they’re not watching this work that’s going on, knows how beautifully the cemetery is maintained. Is that through the Veterans Administration?
MURO: Yes, it is. We have a high standard in the National Cemetery Administration. We have actual standards and measures that we follow and we require individuals and we require our cemeteries – we have a training center in St. Louis that we built specifically to train the standards to not only new directors, new employees, supervisors, wage grade cemetery reps, every phase, gardeners, landscapers, so that they understand what our standard is and the standard we want to reach. And one of the things we’re really proud of in NCA is the fact that we have received a 95 score out of 100 possible for customer service across the nation for the service we provide the veterans and their families at our national cemeteries. We are the only federal agency and/or private sector to ever receive a 95 score.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Mr. Steve Muro. He is Undersecretary of the Veterans Administration for Memorial Affairs. We’re talking about Ft. Rosecrans, we’re talking about a new national site that’s been dedicated as a new national cemetery at Miramar. And he’s also sharing his thoughts on this Memorial Day. We’re asking you to share your thoughts as well on what Memorial Day means to you. 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call. We have to take a short break. We’ll continue our discussion when we return on KPBS.
CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. This is the day we set aside to honor those who gave their lives serving this country in the nation’s armed forces. And right now we’re talking about how Memorial Day is being observed throughout the county and at national cemeteries like those at Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery. I’m speaking with Undersecretary of the Veterans Administration for Memorial Affairs, Steve Muro. And he’s talking to us about – he’s sharing his thoughts on this Memorial Day and also talking to us about a new national cemetery that’s been dedicated and will soon open at Miramar. So, Mr. Muro, let me start out by talking to you about that and also reminding our listeners that we’re taking your phone calls if you’d like to share your thoughts on this Memorial Day, 1-888-895-5727. Have you ever been at a ceremony at a national cemetery? Or have you been to Arlington National Cemetery? Give us a call, 1-888-895-KPBS. Mr. Muro, tell us about this new national cemetery at Miramar. It’s being built on land that is owned by the Marine Corps, right?
MURO: Correct. We have an agreement with the Marine Corps for a little over 300 acres on the northwest corner of the property, so it’s at the far end of the runway, which is the site that used to be the Top Gun training for the naval aviators. And we will be building a new national cemetery there that will have full services to the veterans of the San Diego and Southern California area. They will have upright, white marble headstones. We’ll have a columbarium that will be marble niche covers. We will provide in-ground and columbarium cremation sites and full casket sites for the veterans and their spouses and dependents. We’ll actually provide the outer concrete containers so the individuals will not need to purchase any kind of vault. They’ll just need to purchase a casket, have the services at the funeral home and chapel of their choice, and then come out to the cemetery and have the memorial service, what we call committal shelters. We normally don’t go to gravesite because of the volume of work. We have committal shelters set up that we conduct the service. At the end of the service, the family leaves and then we transport the casketed remains or cremated remains to either the gravesite or the inurnment for – at the columbarium.
CAVANAUGH: Now this site has already been dedicated. What does that mean? What kind of ceremony goes in – takes place to dedicate a new national cemetery?
MURO: Well, we had a dedication where we actually – we became owners of the property under this lease contract with the Department of Navy. We came there to let everybody know and we had speeches and individuals were invited, the Congressmen, Senators and the local community was invited so they would know that we are coming. This is the site. And we had some pictures of what the cemetery will look like as we develop it. And now we start the construction of the site. And we’ve gone through the – during all the ceremony time, we’re working with contracting to go out on bid and get a contractor and hire the contractor to do the work to develop the cemetery. So the dedication tells the community that the cemetery is coming, it’ll be here in the near future. Things that the cemetery will create, not only will it create burial sites, too, so that the veterans and their loved ones can have a place to be buried in a national cemetery but it’ll also create jobs not only within the federal government but for the private sector because we do hire contractors to do some of the work, grounds maintenance, headstone setting, the headstone inscription that we get done at the cemetery. So there’s many things that happen after the dedication as a cemetery evolves in time and then as we start to do burials there. And, again, in San Diego, they’ve not had a national cemetery for casket internments since 1969.
CAVANAUGH: I want to remind our listeners we are taking calls at 1-888-895-5727. Judith is on the line and she’s calling from Point Loma. Good morning, Judith, and welcome to These Days.
JUDITH (Caller, Point Loma): Good morning. Thank you for taking my call.
CAVANAUGH: You’re welcome.
JUDITH: I just wanted to say that as a native of San Diego, excuse me, Rosecrans National Cemetery’s always been so meaningful to me. It’s always been so beautifully maintained, its location, and so what happened is over the years I’ve always gone up there. You can feel the respect and the beauty that’s up there and I think if it weren’t for it being so well taken care of and being in such a beautiful location, I probably wouldn’t have the time to go think about the sacrifices of the people who are buried there and in the historical elements of it when you go and you see the old gravesites from the 1800s. And I just – it’s been so meaningful in my life and I wanted to pass that along to the Undersecretary and to just thank him for that and to thank all the people who have served and given me – and it’s given me the possibility to think about them and to thank them and to experience beautiful moments. So that’s what I wanted to say.
CAVANAUGH: Well, Judith, thank you so much for that.
MURO: Yes. Thank you very much. I appreciate that, and I’ll definitely let the staff know.
CAVANAUGH: I had a question that – for you, but I think that Judith has put it in a certain perspective now. What purpose do you think these cemeteries serve for the larger civilian population of America?
MURO: Well, I think that when we look at all the national cemeteries that we date back to President Lincoln at his second inaugural address where he stated that we should care for him who have borne the battle and his widow and his orphan. We look back at that and they started the first 14 national cemeteries under President Lincoln. Congress gave him authority to bury those war dead from the battle of the Civil War. And today, that we take care of our veterans. We honor our veterans with national shrine. The veterans are those, the ones that gave us the freedom that we have today. And I think that people understand that if a nation does not honor their veterans—and the burial is just one way that we honor. We have other benefits, medical benefits, we have education benefits. When we look back at the original GI Bill, all of individuals that went through college after coming out of World War I – excuse me, World War II and other wars that got this benefit and today the new GI Bill that we’re providing educate people to get them educated and move on, too, because this is our future generation. Someone once said that we inherited this country from past generations and I believe they’re correct and it was these veterans that we inherited it from but we’re also – it’s our responsibility to take care of this inheritance and move it on to the next generation, the generations of our grandchildren and their grandchildren. So we need to take care of what we inherited because we need to pass it on and, right now, when you think about it, we’re just borrowing this nation from future generations so we need to maintain it. And by recognizing those veterans that have given the ultimate sacrifice and their families and that are buried in national cemeteries or buried in state cemeteries or even buried in private cemeteries where we provide a headstone and marker for them so that individuals that visit the cemetery know that these are veterans that are there, I think that’s the biggest part, that we do honor and we do respect the sacrifice that they gave to our nation so that we may live free today.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Pat’s calling us from City Heights. Good morning, Pat, and welcome to These Days.
PAT (Caller, City Heights): Good morning, and thank you for taking my call. I certainly agree with all the sentiment about what a wonderful monument the cemeteries are and even the civilian cemeteries with their sections for veterans who have died. I’m curious as to what’s happened to the red poppy program. When I was a child, before Memorial Day became a three-day holiday weekend and was celebrated on May 30th, one saw veterans selling little red poppies and everyone wore them. We were all encouraged to buy them and wear them. And I don’t see that anymore with the exception if you go out to Rosecrans or occasionally you’ll see veterans selling them at some of the bigger breakfast restaurants. But what’s happened to that program? It really was wonderful.
CAVANAUGH: Thanks for the call, Pat. Do you know, Mr. Muro?
MURO: Well, I can tell you I’m wearing mine that I picked up yesterday at Bakersfield when was at the cemetery. I donated to the cause and got my poppy also and actually I picked up two. I donated enough so I could get two of them because my dad’s a veteran and has passed away and I’ll make sure that this weekend, since I’m here in California, that I’ll visit his gravesite and put the poppy on it. I agree, you know, that’s an old tradition I remember from being young and I – every year, I make sure I pick up my poppy because it is part of the Memorial Day ceremonies for us.
CAVANAUGH: Do people routinely visit national cemeteries even if they don’t have a loved one or a relative buried there?
MURO: Yes, they do. And actually we have a lot of people that like to stroll through the cemetery to look at the gravestones and think of those veterans that are there and especially at some of the older cemeteries that date back to the 1800s and them that we’re still burying at today. They can see a variety of veterans and the different wars and era of – that they served in this – in this nation. We have monuments that people come visit. We’re doing a big restoration of our monuments right now to bring them up and make sure that they’re here for future generations.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder, how do our system of national cemeteries compare with other countries, let’s say, in Europe. Is this something that is all over the world, that there are national cemeteries for those who have served and fallen in defending the country?
MURO: Well, the Battle Monuments Commission oversees the – our – the U.S. cemeteries overseas.
MURO: Other countries have similar cemeteries but most of them don’t have existing, ongoing cemeteries. We have been meeting with other countries that have come to the V.A. to talk about how are you doing this, why are you doing this? And they would like to start. So I think other countries are starting to see that if you honor those that defend your nation, others will step up to defend it in the future.
CAVANAUGH: What do you tell kids about why national cemeteries like Ft. Rosecrans are special?
MURO: Well, one of the things we tell them is, you know, either your grandfather or your grandmother or your parents or someone you know, a teacher, once served the military and this is a place that they can go to visit the loved ones that were here before us. And it’s special to see, I mean, one of the things I look for in the audience is young faces and I see that more and more every year. More and more young people are coming to these ceremonies and more, and more of the schools are bringing them out to learn about the history, to learn about the different wars, and why these individuals defended the nation.
CAVANAUGH: I’m interested, you told us a little bit about the volunteers that take part in those “Taps” and those burial ceremonies at national cemeteries. What other options, what other jobs might you say are out there for people who would like to volunteer at national cemeteries?
MURO: Oh, there’s all kinds. We have some people that are landscapers that want to come out and help beautify the cemetery. We have people that work in the office and provide grave locations for those individuals that are looking for a certain person. They – we have volunteers that actually do tours at cemeteries for the school students or groups that want to tour and learn about the history within that cemetery and those individuals that are interred there. So we have a lot of opportunities for volunteers, and all they need to do is contact the national cemetery and we can set them up and we train them and provide them the training they need so that they provide the correct information whether it be burial eligibility, whether it be historical aspects of the cemetery.
CAVANAUGH: And I want to ask you in closing just a little bit more about the new cemetery that’s opening at Miramar, the new national cemetery. What is the line towards opening now? When will burials start at Miramar?
MURO: Well, right now we’re – our goal is to have burials start before the holidays at the cemetery, to start providing casket burials. Cremations, we’ll have them still at Ft. Rosecrans but at Miramar – I mean, we’ll actually do both. The columbarium won’t be ready until further down because that’ll take longer to build but casket and cremated remains in ground, we’re hoping – our goal right now is to open before the holidays.
CAVANAUGH: And is, indeed, that the name of this new national cemetery? Miramar?
MURO: Yes, it’s Miramar National Cemetery.
CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much for speaking with us today.
MURO: Oh, thank you for the opportunity to be – and God bless America.
CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Mr. Steve Muro. He’s Undersecretary of the Veterans Administration for Memorial Affairs. If you would like to comment online about this segment, please do, KPBS.org/thesedays. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. Stay with us for hour two coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.