Rep. Wilson sponsors bills for expanding Beaufort National Cemetery

U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson recently drafted two bills aimed at expanding Beaufort National Cemetery after declining to sponsor similar legislation in March to oppose the "wasteful" Congressional earmark system.

Wilson, who was re-elected in November to represent South Carolina's 2nd Congressional District, which includes Beaufort County, introduced legislation earlier this month to

allow the U.S. Department of Veterans

Affairs to purchase the 5-acre Lafayette Square apartment complex at 2200 Lafayette St., north of Beaufort National Cemetery. Another bill calls for the VA to conduct a land availability study and report its findings.

The legislation has been forwarded to the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs and the House Committee on Ways and Means.

The Veterans Cemetery Committee of Beaufort, a panel of retired military officials created to investigate all avenues for expanding the existing cemetery, went to Wilson in March to request that $3.2 million be included in the fiscal year 2009 federal budget to purchase the parcel.

But Wilson had decided to enact a one-year moratorium on all earmark requests to his office. Wilson said the earmark moratorium wasn't a reflection of how he felt about the cemetery, but instead "a response to a wasteful system that does not reward merit and which puts well-deserving projects at a disadvantage."

Wilson said purchasing the parcel now makes sense for the government and will serve the cemetery's future interests.

"That cemetery is a national shrine," he said. "From what I understand, that property is for sale, but it's only available for a certain period of time, so there is a sense of urgency here. Land is valuable everywhere, but it's especially valuable in Beaufort. This property would enhance the aesthetics of the cemetery and square off the cemetery."

The Civil War-era cemetery holds the graves of more than 19,000 service members and their spouses from every major American conflict.

The cemetery underwent a $2.9 million, 15-acre expansion in 2006, 10 acres of which was donated by the National Guard, which had built an armory on the site in 1963. That building, which served as a training and meeting building for reservists until 2003 when the Beaufort Readiness Center was built on U.S. 21, was demolished in 2007 to make way for 2,900 more burial plots and 700 spaces for cremated remains.

The recent expansion makes Beaufort National Cemetery an unlikely choice to receive the funds Wilson has requested, said Bernie Bowse, director of the cemetery.

"If it's between our cemetery, which has more than 20 to 30 years of burial space available, and another cemetery that only has another year of burial space, the VA will have to prioritize," Bowse said. "The decision will ultimately be that of Mr. (William) Tuerk (the VA's undersecretary for memorial affairs), but we appreciate Congressman Wilson's efforts. He has always shown loyalty and affection toward the cemetery."

Bowse said the cemetery has burial space through 2030, a time frame Wilson said may be deceptively lengthy.

"2030 seems like a long time, but it's not that long to me," he said. "We should look to acquire this property while it's available."