The National Cemetery Administration’s Veterans Cemetery Grants Program created in 1978, is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the program. The grant program was designed to complement VA’s 136 national cemeteries across the country. The program assists states, territories and federally recognized tribal governments in establishing new Veterans cemeteries, and expanding or improving existing Veterans cemeteries.
According to Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs Randy Reeves, the program is the most effective state and federal partnership across our government and is a great example to follow.
“I’m convinced there would be significant areas within my state [Mississippi] today, where Veterans would not have dignified burial options within 75 miles of their homes, had it not been for the partnership between Mississippi and the NCA,” said Reeves, who served as the executive director of the Mississippi Veterans Affairs Board from 2011-2017.
Since the program’s inception 40 years ago, VA has awarded grants totaling nearly $800 million to establish, expand, improve, operate and maintain 111 Veterans cemeteries in 48 states and territories, including tribal trust lands, Guam, Saipan and Puerto Rico. Customer service scores of these cemeteries match those of VA national cemeteries.
“Nearly a quarter of interments each year are conducted by state and tribal cemeteries,” Reeves said. “We are proud of the state and tribal governments who step up as partners to take care of our Veterans and their family members. Our Veterans and their families live in local communities across the country and no one knows them better than our local partners.”
In fiscal year 2017, these grant-funded cemeteries provided more than 38,000 interments for Veterans and their eligible family members, but according to Reeves, the program is a part of a larger plan.
Reeves said these partners play a pivotal role in providing access to burial benefits and will help VA reach the hardest 5 percent of underserved Veterans and family members.
“The first goal of NCA is to provide reasonable access to 95 percent of Veterans and families and burial benefits within 75 miles of their home,” Reeves said. “We are working toward that goal and are at 92.5 percent right now and will be within 95 percent in just a few years. That last 5 percent is what I call the hardest 5 percent. The hardest 5 percent of Veterans live in remote areas throughout the country. It is our duty to provide them burial options as well.”
“We want to provide a complete equity of service; for those serving our Veterans and their families and for the Veterans and families being served,” he said. “We provide this by ensuring resources are available to our partners to maintain our standards. We must make everything as streamlined and easy as possible for our state and tribal partners. We are working towards that goal every day.”
Reeves recognized four state Veterans cemeteries during a presentation at the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs at its annual conference August 15. He presented Cemetery Operational Excellence Awards to Kansas, Arkansas, Georgia and Delaware.
As a requirement for the award, each of the recognized state cemeteries underwent a rigorous compliance review by a team of NCA trained reviewers. Each state cemetery receiving the award met or exceeded performance targets in the areas of interment operations, grounds maintenance, headstone, marker and niche covers.
During the presentation, Reeves also charged each director to focus on Veteran memorialization. “I am dedicated to ensuring the names of our Veterans laid to rest in our VA national cemeteries, and those Veterans buried in state and tribal Veterans cemeteries around the country, are never forgotten for their service to our nation. As long as we remember, continue to speak their names and share their stories, no Veteran will ever truly die.”
Shawn D. Graham is a public affairs specialist with the National Cemetery Administration. Shawn is a retired U.S. Navy chief petty officer who served his country for nearly 21 years. He has deployed numerous times to remote regions to include Afghanistan and Uganda.