In the 240 years since our nation’s founding, more than one million men and women have given their lives to defending us. Memorial Day is the day we set aside to honor their service and sacrifice. As someone who has served in the military, it is extremely moving for me to attend a Memorial Day service or to visit a cemetery and to see a sea of American flags lovingly placed nearby the headstones of fallen soldiers. It is a stark but important visual reminder that our freedom comes at a great cost.
As the years go by, when there are fewer family members and friends left to visit these memorials to individual service members, we are fortunate that there are dedicated veterans service organizations and community members who have taken up the mantle to ensure these brave men and women will never be forgotten. I have been pleased to work alongside many of them, including the Ohio History Connection, the Ohio Cemetery Association, the Franklin County Veterans Service Commission, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the Green Lawn Cemetery Association and Foundation, the Cleveland Grays Armory, the Woodland Cemetery Foundation and students at Washington High School in Washington Court House, Ohio, to get a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) rule changed to ensure that they can continue their work to mark the graves of, and properly honor, all those who have served.
The rule required that in order to request a headstone or marker from the VA, the applicant must be the decedent’s next-of-kin. When it comes to honoring veterans of wars fought early on in our history, there are few surviving next-of-kin. And so this rule was hindering the ability of Ohio veteran- and history-related organizations, as well as those in the funerary profession, who have done extensive research to identify Americans who fought and died or their country, to secure for these veterans the proper recognition.
For example, between 2001 and 2013, Washington Court House history teacher Paul LaRue and his students made it a class project to honor veterans with unmarked or neglected graves. Their first project, at a nearby cemetery where several African American Civil War veterans were buried, involved researching the veterans, requesting headstones from the VA and then rolling up their sleeves to install them. They turned a sad, neglected plot of graves into a source of pride for the community. Following their success, Mr. LaRue’s class was invited by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center to take on a similar project in Cincinnati. In all, Mr. LaRue’s students installed more than 70 headstones in five cemeteries in Ohio.
The Washington Court House students’ philosophy is that all veterans, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or gender should have a headstone. Fortunately, the class had started their projects before the VA began enforcing the next-of-kin policy, otherwise, they would not have been able to complete them.
I introduced a bill that would have changed the VA rule to ensure individuals like Mr. LaRue, his students and others would be able to request veteran headstones in the future; however, before it could pass, the VA agreed to revisit the policy and recently released its new guidelines. They expanded the list of those eligible to apply for a burial headstone or marker from only family members to also include representatives from state, local and Congressionally-recognized veteran organizations, as well as to those responsible for burial and memorialization of unclaimed remains.
In the case of veterans whose service ended prior to 1917 – those least likely to have a surviving family member — anyone can apply on their behalf. This was very welcome news to me and to the outstanding Ohio organizations and individuals who have dedicated their time, intellect and energy to the goal of making sure all veterans get the recognition they deserve – both on Memorial Day and year round.
This Memorial Day, let us all rededicate ourselves to the memory of our fallen heroes. And as always, if you have concerns, ideas or need help with a federal agency, please call my office in Washington, D.C. at (202) 225-2015, Hilliard at (614) 771-4968, Lancaster at (740) 654-2654, or Wilmington at (937) 283-7049.
Steve Stivers is a member of Congress from Ohio’s 15th Congressional District.