Memorial Day

Sarasota is among VA's new cemetery expansions

SARASOTA — The math is unrelenting.

Every day, about 1,000 U.S. World War II veterans die. Include veterans of all American conflicts, the figure rises to 1,900 daily — almost 700,000 a year.

And each is owed a final GI benefit: a free burial plot.

With Department of Veterans Affairs cemeteries quickly filling up around the nation, the agency will break ground Sunday for construction of its newest, the Sarasota VA National Cemetery.

The VA paid more than $14-million for 295 acres off State Road 72 where cattle once roamed. About 800,000 veterans will be buried there when capacity is reached in a half century. Construction will cost $28-million or more.

The first burial isn't expected before December.

For veterans, burial is virtually free (coffins are not covered). "They paid the cost when they served our nation,'' said director Sandra Beckley.

Some experts say the VA was caught off guard in the 1970s by the rising tide of the dead. The agency is now pouring hundreds of millions into the effort to keep pace.

The VA's fiscal 2009 budget requests $425.1-million for cemetery operations, including construction costs.

At least eight national cemeteries have been built recently, are now planned or are under construction around the nation, the largest cemetery construction effort since the Civil War. In the last decade, nine cemeteries have been completed.

Florida is home to five national cemeteries, not including Sarasota. Plans also are under way for a VA cemetery in Jacksonville. Still, the VA acknowledges more land will be needed.

"Unfortunately, veterans are dying even as we're having this conversation," said Jo Schuda, a VA spokeswoman. "Veteran deaths are peaking, and it's a challenge to keep up. But that's our obligation to them."

The VA maintains 125 national cemeteries, the final resting place to an estimated 2.8-million veterans from the Revolutionary War to Iraq.

An increasing number have no more room for burials, including the VA's 23-acre cemetery at Bay Pines in St. Petersburg, whose last burial took place in 1987. Just over 26,000 people are buried there.

Bay Pines, however, still has room for cremated remains for another 12 years, said Faith Belcher, a Bay Pines spokeswoman.

The national cemetery 2 miles west of Interstate 75 and south of Bushnell — Florida's largest VA cemetery with 512 acres — already has close to 100,000 interments since its 1988 opening. But 41,000 more plots will be available after a $20.2-million expansion. Other cemeteries also are expanding to make do, the VA says.

Florida's other national cemeteries are in Pensacola, Lake Worth and St. Augustine.

Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan promise more burials still, today and in a half century.

"Right now with this fighting, we're going to have another generation of veterans to take care of for the next 20, 30, 40, 50 years," said Jeff Teas, a regional VA cemetery official.

The desire for cremations is increasing, which may lessen the burden. In the Sarasota area, for example, 60 percent of residents opt for cremation, the VA says, though many communities don't have rates nearly as high.

An oddity about these crammed cemeteries is that most veterans seek burial outside the VA — perhaps as many as 90 percent, the VA says.

For one thing, not all VA cemeteries are close enough to allow family to visit regularly. And while wives can be buried with their husbands, adult children are usually excluded.

Corey Waters, 39, a Navy veteran and father who lives in St. Petersburg, said that's why he doesn't want a VA burial. But he still gets angry when someone suggests that VA burial benefits are too lucrative.

"I left everything behind to serve my country," Waters said. "I put myself in harm's way. We're not getting special treatment. We earned it."

Finally, one point of trivia that stumps everyone: Remembering that Arlington National Cemetery is run by the Army and not the VA, who is the only American president buried in a VA cemetery?

Hint: He's buried in the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery in Louisville, Ky.

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3436.

Decline in veterans

About 16-million U.S. troops served in World War II. Here are estimates of the decline of that population in coming years:

20082.4-millon
20101.8-million
2015750,000
2020214,000
2022115,000

Note: No estimates are available after 2022. But if a soldier was 18 when the war ended in 1945, he would be 108 years old by 2035.

Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Sarasota is among VA's new cemetery expansions 05/25/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 26, 2008 10:58am]

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