Historic California Naval cemetery could get new life

Matt Saintsing
August 02, 2018 - 3:23 pm

Photo Courtesy of Myrna Hayes

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The oldest military cemetery on the Pacific Coast has been crumbling for years, but a renewed effort on Capitol Hill could transfer the decrepit graveyard to the Department of Veterans Affairs. 

This week, Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) sponsored legislation that would transfer responsibility of the historic Mare Island Naval Shipyard from the City of Vallejo to the VA’s National Cemetery Administration.  There’s an identical bill in the House, with growing bipartisan support as 71 House Republicans and Democrats have thrown their support behind it. 

The Mare Island Naval Shipyard just outside Vallejo, Calif. closed down permanently in 1996 through a Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round, and the adjacent cemetery was abandoned, other than local volunteers who tend to the historic property. 

The cemetery is the final resting place for three Medal of Honor recipients, as well as one of Francis Scott Key’s daughters, Anna Arnold Key Turner. 

Photo Courtesy of Myrna Hayes

“Gravestones are toppled over, broken or sinking into the ground. Plants and weeds are overgrown and water is pooling without proper drainage,” Sen. Feinstein wrote in documents submitted to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee this week. 

READ MORE: Historic Naval cemetery left for dead

Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) introduced the legislation in April, and calls the cemetery a “national sanctuary for our veterans.” 

“The cemetery should be maintained to the highest standards so our men and women in uniform are honored to the fullest,” said Thompson. 

The bill aims to officially transfer authority, and accountability for maintenance, to the VA. As it stands currently, the City of Vallejo provides some aesthetic maintenance, such as pruning overgrown acacia trees. But the City filed for bankruptcy in 2008, and funds are limited. 

What’s more, since the cemetery is a historic site, gravestones and other markers can’t be touched, even if some are crumbling. 

READ MORE: Volunteer event for historic Mare Island cemetery an 'overwhelming success' 

“We firmly believe (VA’s National Cemetery Administration) is the best authority and only authority to restore Mare Island Cemetery to its greatness,” director of VA and Rehabilitation at the American Legion told a panel of Senators Wednesday during a legislative hearing. 

While veterans and advocates long for the VA to fix up the historic burial site, the VA is pushing back against the bill. Among the opposition, VA’s undersecretary for benefits Paul Lawrence said the department is worried about the potential cost, which could exceed $1.5 million. 

“The transfer of the Mare Island Naval Cemetery to VA could disrupt efforts currently underway to address the condition of the cemetery, and because the acquisition of the cemetery by VA does not align with VA’s current strategic objectives with respect to providing burial access to veterans and their families,” Lawrence wrote to the committee. 

He continues that the transfer “sets an unwanted precedent regarding veteran cemeteries in disrepair managed to localities, allowing them to eschew their responsibility of our nation’s heroes.” 

Thompson’s legislation has yet to be considered by the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, and the Senate will have to decide to advance Feinstein’s companion bill after the August recess. 

    Contact us about this article, or share your story, at gethelp@connectingvets.com.