VA to allow more gravesite memorials

Change followed push by Ohio lawmakers to allow groups to request tombstones.

Todd Kleismit still remembers the summer day in 2012 when he and other history enthusiasts gathered at Green Lawn Cemetery in Columbus to mark the graves of Civil War veterans who had lay in anonymity for decades.

Kleismit, the director of community and government relations for Ohio History Connection, was gathering with Americorps volunteers who had worked tirelessly to research and identify the unmarked graves. As the group stood near the newly-marked tombs, some teared up. Others spoke in honor of people they had never met.

At the time, he hoped it would become an annual event.

But a new VA rule — written in 2009 and enacted in 2012 — stopped that hope in its tracks.

That rule required that only next of kin be able to request VA memorials. Not only did the change mean that Ohio History Connection and other groups that had honored veterans could no longer request tombstones, it also left many deceased veterans in the lurch; it’s hard to find the next of kin for someone who died during the Spanish-American war.

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Now, that rule has been reversed. As of April 1, representatives from veterans organizations can order headstones or markers, as long as efforts have been made first to consult next-of-kin. For veterans whose service ended before 1917 — the ones least likely to have a surviving family member — anyone can request a tombstone.

The rule was changed in large part because of a bill introduced in 2013 by Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Upper Arlington. Stivers’ bill — co-sponsored by Columbus area Reps. Pat Tiberi, R-Genoa Twp., and Joyce Beatty, D-Jefferson Twp. — sought to change the regulation if the VA failed to act.

His quest resulted in multiple hearings on the issue.

At one hearing Glenn Powers, deputy under-secretary for field programs for the National Cemetery Administration, said he wanted to make the regulation “less limiting,” but still ensure that family members are included in the decision-making process. When the rule was originally instituted, Powers said, “There was a concern that very-well-intended people were asking for headstones and markers and we were removing families from the equation.”

But Stivers said there was little evidence that anyone was over-ruling families’ intent.

The rule change, he said, “is going to help make sure a lot of veterans in neglected or unmarked graves get a chance to have their service recognized.”

That rule also meant work like that of retired Washington Court House history teacher Paul LaRue can continue. Beginning in 2001, his classes would research the unmarked graves of veterans. When the headstones were dilapidated, destroyed or missing, they would order new ones. In 2013, the rule changed abruptly, stopping his work. He was one of those to testify in support of Stivers’ request.

LaRue, 57, retired in 2014, but is still doing workshops to encourage history teachers to embrace historic preservation in the classroom.

“I’m amazed, when I see students who have been out of school now for quite a while, and they still remember, ‘I helped with that headstone,’” he said. “We did this with a great sense of pride.”

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