National News

Feds will now pay for liners protecting vets' graves at Andersonville

Posted May 29, 2018 3:18 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON -- As chairman of the board of trustees for Friends of Andersonville, Jim Covington thought he understood more about the Middle Georgia military cemetery and national historic site than just about anyone.

So the Vietnam veteran was shocked to hear that a federal loophole was forcing veterans' families to pay out of pocket for a required casket accessory, information he learned while making funeral arrangements for one of his own relatives. He decided then and there that the situation needed to be remedied.

"It was just actually a fluke," he said. But "what happened was a lot of people were falling through the cracks."

Covington started asking around his hometown of Americus. He knew the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reimbursed the costs of grave liners -- a protective layer of plastic, concrete or fiberglass required in most graveyards to prevent caskets from sinking or caving in underground -- for vets buried in its 135 cemeteries.

But he learned the cemetery at Andersonville, a Civil War prison camp, was an exception because it's operated by the National Park Service. The agency is covered by its own statutes, and both it and the VA were barred from covering the cost of the liners there.

That meant families had to foot the bill for a benefit provided for free to vets buried at most of the country's other military cemeteries.

Grave liners typically retail for upwards of $700. While it's impossible to know how many veterans' families decided to bury their loved ones elsewhere because of that cost, Covington suspected that some probably chose to look elsewhere.

"You just don't know who was turned away just by receiving that information," he said.

The discrepancy was well known to Greg Hancock, the owner of an Americus funeral chapel that bears his name.

"Our families around here just know that's part of Andersonville and they're going to have to furnish their own" grave liners, he said. But "there's been times where (an out-of-town) funeral home would call me back and say if (the Park Service is) not going to furnish (a grave liner for a vet), they'll be buried somewhere else."

The grave liner discrepancy is decades old, dating to when the Park Service took control of more than a dozen cemeteries from the Army.

Jody Mays, the chief of interpretation and resource management at the Andersonville National Historic Site, said the Park Service never received official authorization from Congress to cover the cost of the grave liners.

"It just didn't get set up when they transferred the cemetery to (the Park Service)" in 1970, she said. "I think it just kind of fell between the cracks, basically."

That lack of authorization was not a problem for most of the 14 cemeteries the Park Service manages, since 12 of them are no longer burying veterans. But it is an issue for Andersonville, which inters roughly 180 to 200 veterans a year, and Andrew Johnson National Cemetery in eastern Tennessee.

After becoming aware of what he calls the "bureaucratic gridlock," Covington set his sights on Washington. He sent a letter in December to the office U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who also leads the chamber's Veterans Affairs Committee.

Isakson said he hadn't been aware of the problem.

"I, first of all, did not know exactly what a grave liner was," Isakson said. "I started investigating, and sure enough that's right. For a veteran buried in Marietta or Arlington (Virginia), the VA provides a grave liner for the grave of that veteran, but if they were buried at Andersonville ... that was not provided."

Providing those liners, he said, was necessary "out of respect."

Isakson's office drafted legislation to require the U.S. Department of Interior, which oversees the Park Service, to cover the costs of grave liners for new burials and reimburse vets' families that previously were forced to pay for their own.

The bill moved at a relatively fast pace by Capitol Hill standards. The House passed the measure 388-0 earlier this month, and the Senate cleared it unanimously on Thursday, sending it to President Donald Trump's desk for his signature.

"We saw the discrepancy and we went to fix it," said U.S. Rep. Austin Scott of Tifton, who was the lead sponsor of the bill in the House. "The bottom line is if someone has earned the right to be buried in one of our military graveyards, then we can cover that cost."

Mays said Andersonville was also pleased about the changes.

"That's something that we would have liked to have seen (vets and their families) have as a benefit from the get-go," she said.

Tamar Hallerman writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Email: Tamar.Hallerman(at)ajc.com.

Story Filed By Cox Newspapers

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