NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — In a letter to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, seven Tennessee representatives expressed concern that the state may soon run out of graves promised to those who served in the United States Armed Forces.
Denis McDonough, current Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA), was asked in the letter to outline current plans to increase the availability of federal veteran graves in locations statewide. You can find the full letter below:
“Of the five national veterans cemeteries located in Tennessee serving our veteran constituents and their families,” the letter read, “Only two currently have burial space available and even these limited spaces are rapidly running out.”
According to federal guidelines, honorably discharged veterans, deceased active-duty service members and their spouses or minor children are eligible to be interred at national cemeteries through an application process. VA instructions add that while veterans can apply for a cemetery that they prefer, there is no guarantee that they will be offered a plot at that specific location.
The National Cemetery Administration shows that three of Tennessee’s five federal locations are only accepting cremation burials, rather than casketed burials.
Mountain Home National Cemetery, located on Johnson City’s VA campus alongside James H. Quillen Veterans Affairs Hospital, indicates open burial plots for qualifying veterans.
Mountain Home officials said they have plenty of space, and it is not rapidly running out. They said a recent expansion provided 7,500 burial sites that extends the life of the cemetery until 2032.
David Batchelder is the post service officer at the VFW 2166 in Elizabethton. He said he hasn’t seen any issues getting a burial on the Mountain Home grounds.
“From when I’ve talked to the administration over there, there doesn’t seem to be any issues as far as space and there shouldn’t be in the foreseeable future,” Batchelder said.
Mountain Home officials said a potential expansion in the future would add 21,000 burial sites.
VFW 2108 Commander TJ Miles said that is important for Tri-Cities military families. He said it should bring peace of mind knowing Mountain Home can still take in more veterans.
“The families are here. This is where most of them have lived all their lives, so they want to be buried here,” Miles said.
Batchelder said the military burial is an important honor for any servicemember who died in combat or received an honorable discharge.
“It’s just a recognition of their service, and it means a lot to the surviving family members when their loved ones have the military honors at their funeral,” Batchelder said.
Right now, though, the only other national location in Tennessee open to non-cremated burial is located in Chattanooga.
The office of Rep. Mark Green, one of the signees, said Tennessee military families deserve better than driving to Johnson City or Chattanooga to bury a loved one or visit their grave.
At the state level, five veteran cemeteries are administered by the state of Tennessee with the help of VA grant funding. Of those, some reported a wide availability of burial space:
- Staff at the East Tennessee State Veterans Cemetery located on Gov. John Sevier Highway told News Channel 11 that current plots are expected to be filled around 2070, with multiple burial options.
- The East Tennessee State Veterans Cemetery on Lyons View Pike was reported as full by state staff, with the only remaining room reserved for the spouses of those already buried.
- Staff with the Middle Tennessee State Veterans Cemetery in Nashville expect to have available plots for 100 years or longer, with multiple burial options.
- Tennessee State Veterans Cemetery at Crossroads staff told News Channel 11 that well over 100 years worth of plots were available.
- Staff with the West Tennessee State Veterans Cemetery simply stated that they had 260 acres within the complex, refusing to specify further.
Several states report similar issues with limited space at national veterans cemeteries. In Virginia, only two of their 15 national cemeteries are open for new admissions. Just one allows for burials.
“The intentions were good for these national cemeteries, but I just don’t think they envisioned the gravity of the situation we’re in now,” Miles said.
The average age at VFW 2108 is somewhere in the 60s, Miles said. As Korean and Vietnam War veterans get older, Miles said space in these cemeteries will need to expand.
The letter was signed by GOP Representatives Diana Harshbarger, Tim Burchett, Charles Fleischmann, Scott DesJarlais, John Rose, Mark Green and David Kustoff.
“As Tennessee’s representatives in the United States House of Representatives,” the letter reads, “We request your planned solution to this growing crisis of cemetery availability for our veteran constituents.”
McDonough was asked to respond to the letter by April 30.