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Consumer Reports

Veterans' cemeteries running out of burial space | (KRT) LEAVENWORTH, Kan. - The funeral for Saul Lee Davis, 69, Army veteran of the Korean War, includes both God and country. A minister leads Davis' coffin into a committal shelter at Leavenworth National Cemetery. A carillon tolls. Taps is played. A three-man honors detail fires its rifle volleys.

All around is the buttoned-down and squared-away signature of a national veterans cemetery: hundreds of rows of regulation headstones, standing as if at attention.

"It was really important to me that he be buried here," Davis' widow, Frances, said after the recent service. "He served his country, and I thought it was proper."

On this day, in 128 acres of the Leavenworth cemetery, there is a place for Saul Lee Davis, but at some federal veterans cemeteries, there is only so much sacred ground to go around.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs operates 120 national cemeteries across the country. Of those, 61 are open to both casketed and cremated interments, such as at Leavenworth National Cemetery, adjacent to the Dwight D. Eisenhower Medical Center.

Of the remaining 59 cemeteries, 26 are open to cremated remains and perhaps casketed remains in the gravesites of previously interred family members.

Thirty-three national cemeteries are closed to new interments, but some family members might be accommodated in already occupied gravesites.

Meanwhile, the nation's veterans' community continues to age.

Just in Missouri, about 13,000 veterans are expected to die this year, said Ron Taylor, executive director of the Missouri Veterans Commission. Over the next 20 years, about 200,000 Missouri veterans are expected to die.

Nationwide, more than 646,000 veterans died in 2002, and the federal government expects the number of veteran deaths to peak in 2008 at 676,000.

About 10 percent of American veterans choose to be buried in national cemeteries.

"Many veterans, when they served, always believed that a benefit from that service would be eligibility for burial in a veterans cemetery," Taylor said. "But that has become problematic."

Not long after the recent war in Iraq began, all federal veterans cemeteries received a request from Washington.

"We were just told that if there were any active-duty burials, that we needed to accommodate the families any way we could," said Debbie Williams, administrative officer of the Leavenworth National Cemetery.

During the Iraq war, there was only one active-duty burial in either Leavenworth National Cemetery of Fort Leavenworth Cemetery. That was for Sgt. Donald R. Walters of Kansas City, an Army cook who was killed when his unit was ambushed March 23 near Nasiriyah, Iraq.

The Walters family requested that he be buried in the Fort Leavenworth cemetery, which has been closed to casketed remains since the early 1980s.

"We took all the maps out and went through all the obstructed sites we had," Williams said.

Obstructed sites are spots that once may have held trees or utility lines. Once potential sites were located, officials coordinated with groundskeepers who probed individual sites looking for utility lines or tree roots that might impede a casketed burial.

When they found a potential spot, where a tree once had stood, they pulled records to confirm that the space was not reserved for someone's spouse.

It was not.

Walters was buried there April 12. Stacie Walters, his widow, was aware of the effort made by cemetery staff.

"I am very appreciative of what they did for my husband, because that is what he wanted," she said. "He was a soldier, and he wanted to be buried there.

"That is what he wanted, and that is where I put him."

"We were fortunate," Williams said. "You just don't know how many times you can get lucky like that."

There is plenty of room in many national cemeteries, Veterans Affairs Department spokeswoman Jo Schuda said.

"In all of our national cemeteries we have 13,900 acres," she said. "Half of those acres are undeveloped, and we have the potential to provide 3 million burial spaces."

The problem is more of location.

In Missouri, Springfield National Cemetery is open only to cremated remains. Officials say Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis may close in 10 years.

In response, the VA is trying to place future cemeteries within 75 miles of metropolitan areas with large veteran populations that do not have easy access to burial space.

Where possible, the government is looking to acquire land next to existing cemeteries. An expansion at Leavenworth National Cemetery, for example, created 6,700 new gravesites about two years ago.

Meanwhile, the federal government continues to help the states build cemeteries, having spent more than $155 million since the program began in 1980.

Two such cemeteries in Missouri opened in 2000. One is in Higginsville, just east of Kansas City, the other in Springfield. Opening this summer are cemeteries near the Bootheel and in northeast Missouri.

In Kansas, the first of four planned cemeteries opened in November near Dodge City.

"These cemeteries are going to be maintained to national veterans cemetery standards," said Kafer Peele, director of the Kansas cemetery program.

Burial in such cemeteries offers veterans and their families one final benefit. Veterans who were not dishonorably discharged, as well as their spouses and dependent children, often are eligible.

Free benefits can include the opening and closing of a gravesite, an upright headstone, a grave liner for casketed remains and perpetual care of the site.

"Our attitude is that they paid for it with their honorable discharge," said Jess Rasmussen, director of the Missouri Veterans Cemetery in Higginsville, Mo.

But that is not all that draws veterans and their families to the cemeteries. In 2002, the country's national cemeteries received 8.7 million visitors.

"These cemeteries are enduring landscapes of honor," said James Mayo, urban affairs professor at the University of Kansas and author of ``War Memorials As Political Landscape: The American Experience and Beyond.''

"I think that sort of enduring character or longevity appeals to people. They appreciate the caretaking that occurs with them, as opposed to that at your local cemetery, which might go into disrepair."

Finally, the veterans will receive full tribute.

"These veterans will be buried with dignity and honor," Peele said. "Even if a veteran has no family, our staff will be present. He will have honors and taps will be played."

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services