Federal officials have rebuffed the first attempt by a Jefferson City committee to gain support from the U.S. government for a new national cemetery site in Jefferson City.
In late April, members of the committee, in connection with a coalition of lawmakers and city leaders, sent a letter to Randy Reeves, under secretary for Memorial Affairs within the Department of Veterans Affairs, asking that feds begin the process of identifying a new national cemetery site in Jefferson City.
The existing site, which sits on about 2 acres at 1024 E. McCarty St., has been closed to new burials since 1969.
The small plot of land contains 1,792 headstones, said Dan Phillips, a retired Air Force colonel with Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Phillips was unable to discuss the decision by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The request stated the committee had identified at least one location that would be an acceptable spot for the cemetery.
Through the letter, the committee asked that Missouri's U.S. Sens. Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill and U.S. Reps. Vicky Hartzler and Blaine Luetkemeyer — who received copies of the request — assist in the effort.
"It is important we work to provide final resting places, in a convenient location for the central Missouri veterans and their family members who have sacrificed so much for our nation's freedom," the letter stated.
The letter, written on Missouri General Assembly letterhead, was signed by state Sen. Mike Kehoe, state Rep. Jay Barnes and state Rep. Mike Bernskoetter, all Republicans from Jefferson City. It also was signed by Jefferson City Mayor Carrie Tergin.
Reeves' response, written to Kehoe, said the "VA and the National Cemetery Administration are committed to honoring the military service and contributions of our nation's veterans." It stated the policy of the NCA is to establish new national cemeteries only in places where 80,000 veterans live within a 75-mile radius of the proposed location.
The response said Reeves' organization has conducted an analysis of the Jefferson City area and found it lies within the 75-mile service area of a Missouri State Veterans Cemetery at Jacksonville and at Ft. Leonard Wood.
Furthermore, those living outside Jefferson City are within reasonable reach of the state cemetery in Higginsville (to the west) and the Jefferson Barracks (to the east).
"There are no veterans in the area who do not have reasonable access to a first interment option," Reeves said in the letter. "Consequently, the area does not meet VA's policy for the establishment of a new veterans cemetery."
At this point, people involved in the effort to create more national cemetery sites in Jefferson City are just trying to get approval for the process, Bernskoetter said. However, they are being told they technically don't qualify.
They are looking at the next available steps they may take, he said.
Reeves suggested his department would "be happy" to work with the state to establish a new state veterans cemetery in Jefferson City through a grant program. The Department of Veterans Affairs Veterans Cemetery Grants Program, established in 1978, assists states, territories and federally recognized tribal governments in providing grave sites for veterans, where national cemeteries can't meet their needs, according to the VA website.
The VA can provide up to 100 percent of the development cost for an approved project. However, the VA does not provide for the acquisition of land, according to the website.
Committee Chairman Leon DeLong took the feds' response back to members of American Legion Post 5 in Jefferson City on Tuesday night to see how they felt about the reply. His intention, he said, was to attend the regular meeting of the post and encourage members to begin a letter-writing campaign.
However, reception of Reeves' letter left some wondering if they would be wasting money on postage in such a campaign. The post had committed to setting aside $500 to assist with the letter-writing campaign. When members learned of the response, they agreed with DeLong that a letter-writing campaign may not be the best option.
A more viable option, they said, would be to circulate a local petition that would show national lawmakers the support a new cemetery has in Jefferson City.
Members of Post 5 agreed to continue holding the $500 available, should the committee focused on the national cemetery need it.