As the burial rate rises at North Carolina’s state-managed cemeteries for veterans, officials say they’re embarrassed by how bedraggled some have become.
And that’s inspiring a push for more spending — although some legislators are looking at alternatives.
Just this month, Gov. Pat McCrory publicly apologized to the family of a Marine who, before he succumbed to leukemia, had told his mother he didn’t want to be buried in the Jacksonville state veterans’ cemetery. Michael Boffo, who died in August 2014, had deemed the grounds a “mess” after touring the site for a dignified plot, and chose to be buried in Virginia, the family says.
“I’ve been to these cemeteries now, and frankly, they’re in bad shape and do not reflect the gratitude North Carolina’s citizens have for our veterans,” McCrory said Jan. 15 at a Gulf War anniversary event in Raleigh. He told the crowd he would ask the General Assembly to designate money for improvements.
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In a recent presentation to a legislative panel, Cornell Wilson, head of the state’s new Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, showed a slide that depicted an orange hazard cone next to a line of grave markers on patchy, sandy grounds.
“After a decade of neglect, the result is ugly and potentially unsafe state cemeteries,” the slide read.
Four veterans’ cemeteries are under state management, offering free plots to honorably discharged veterans and $400 plots for qualifying dependents.
The governor’s office announced Thursday that North Carolina now has the nation’s eighth-highest veteran population.
The newest state cemetery, in Goldsboro, was just dedicated in November to accommodate about 11,000 graves. The N&O reported that the federal government provided a $5.4 million grant for its construction but wasn’t interested in running it, so the state stepped in. The General Assembly supplemented the federal grant with $600,000.
But staffing levels at the cemeteries haven’t changed much in at least a decade, the department says. According to a 2014 year-end report from the state, there were 15 full-time employees assigned to the three state cemeteries in operation at the time. Ten of them were paid from income, including sale of plots for dependents.
The cemeteries had $450,000 in appropriations programmed for the first half of the current fiscal year under the Department of Administration, a broad agency that previously housed the cemeteries’ oversight. The state contributed about $64,000 of that; the rest is federal money.
Updated budget figures under the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, which now oversees the cemeteries, were not available, but officials say the program is underfunded.
A law that passed last year extended burial services into weekends at all four cemeteries, which stretches the staff even thinner, officials say.
“Put it like this — other states operate at three times the staffing level,” said Ilario Pantano, who oversees veterans’ affairs at the new department. “So we’re really operating a skeleton crew against the need.”
The rate of burial growth, at 4 percent in recent years, is expected to reach 7 percent this year, according to the new department. That’s attributed in part to an aging veteran population. More than 400,000 veterans in North Carolina are over age 60.
The state cemeteries have acreage where they could grow, but every new burial adds maintenance needs.
Pantano said the cemeteries in Jacksonville and Fayetteville — which together received 741 new burials in 2015, some of whom were dependents — raise the most concern.
“It’s not entirely a horror story, but it’s not appropriate for our fallen,” Pantano said. “It’s just not.”
He described scenes of excessive dirt, soil erosion and other “conditions that do not invoke the solemnity or the stature of what we all perceive and believe a veterans’ cemetery should look like. … This is not Arlington. And it should be. And it should be.”
In addition to the four state-managed veterans’ cemeteries — Black Mountain is home to the fourth — there are five federally run cemeteries — in Raleigh, Wilmington, New Bern and two in Salisbury. Their oldest burials date to the 19th century.
The federal facilities aren’t reporting the same maintenance shortcomings but are seeing a similar burial rate increase. Jasper Edwards, spokesman for the Salisbury complex, connected the increase there to improved efforts to inform veterans about the cemeteries, where veterans who have received anything other than a dishonorable discharge may qualify for free burial.
“We take care of all the headstones and niche covers to ensure they are enshrined forever,” Edwards said.
He didn’t have burial growth rates handy, but did acknowledge a rise in senior-age veteran deaths. “Because they’re World War II. I’m getting a lot of those in here,” Edwards said. “And the Korean War veterans are now coming. Vietnam Veterans (too) because of what Agent Orange did to them.”
While the next legislative session isn’t scheduled until late April, McCrory said he has directed his administration to find resources to improve the state sites “and have made a commitment that they will be supported in my proposed budget.”
While veterans’ affairs money is typically prioritized for programs that help living veterans, Pantano said the creation of the new department — a cabinet-level agency — gives better focus to the cemeteries cause. That cause previously had to compete for allocations with other divisions under the broad Department of Administration, he said.
But the push for stronger funding hasn’t won over all lawmakers.
Rep. George Cleveland, a Jacksonville Republican and chairman of a House committee that examines veterans’ needs, said he’s concerned with the upkeep. But he said the money on hand might be sufficient.
“Just from a high-level view, I have a feeling that it is a management problem,” he said, though he did not go into specifics. “And until they can show me that it isn’t that, I’m not amenable to addressing more money for them.”