Local Military News

VA cemeteries confronted with increased demand

CHICAGO -- Jerry Schoppe spent 20 years in the Army, serving at posts worldwide. For his 25th birthday he dodged bullets in a dugout in the Vietnam War, and when he dies the Plainfield, Ill., resident wants to be buried at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery.

"It is something that I feel I have earned by standing out there and letting someone shoot at me," said Schoppe, 70, commander of Cantigny Post 367 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Joliet, Ill.

"Plus, there's a lot of comrades buried there," he said. "Most of the people out there have gone through some similar stuff to what I have gone through."

Requests from people such as Schoppe have increased each year since the cemetery in southwest suburban Elwood opened in 1999.

A $22 million expansion and renovation now under way is expected to accommodate the increased demand, officials say.

The project is one of 19 planned at veterans cemeteries nationwide to meet the needs of aging veterans of World War II, Vietnam and Korean wars, as well as soldiers from the war on terror, said Chris Erbe, a spokesman for the National Cemetery Administration, a division of the Department of Veterans Affairs. There are six more in the pipeline, Erbe said.

The administration started the expansion push about 10 years ago and has added 12 new cemeteries since then, he said.

Beaufort National Cemetery, which contains the graves of about 20,000 service members and their spouses, has enough space to last until 2030, according to cemetery administrators. The 49-acre site was last expanded in 2006, most of the land coming from a donation by the National Guard.

U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson introduced legislation earlier this year for Veterans Affairs to study the feasibility of expanding the cemetery by about five acres. The bill has not made it out of committee. Wilson sponsored a similar bill in 2008 that failed in committee.

Sean Baumgartner, assistant director at Lincoln National Cemetery, said it handles more than 3,000 burials a year. Sitting on 982 acres of land that formerly belonged to the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant, the cemetery has five to 30 funerals a day.

"We're getting busy. In order to accommodate that, we have to have more burial space," he said.

The expansion, expected to be completed in 2012, will mean another 20 acres of burial space on top of the existing 72 acres, Baumgartner said. There will be nearly 13,000 new burial spots, including crypts, gravesites and columbarium niches for cremains. Plans include upgrades to roads, the main entrance gate, signage, walkways and landscaping, he said.

There are 131 veterans cemeteries nationwide. Veterans, as well as their spouses and dependents, can be buried in these cemeteries free of charge.

There now are 18 veterans of the war on terrorism buried at Lincoln, including Army Pfc. Andrew Meari, of Plainfield, who died in Afghanistan Nov. 1, 2010.

Last year on Memorial Day, President Barack Obama laid a wreath at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, which is the 13th-busiest of all veterans cemeteries. But many veterans still are not aware they have the option of being buried there, Schoppe said.

"The knowing of it is not as popular as you would think," said Schoppe, whose wife, Barbara, was buried there last year. "It's something that they have worked and died for basically. Why not take advantage of it?"

Nancy Caddick said her brother didn't think he could be buried at a veterans cemetery because he lost his separation papers after leaving the Army, but Caddick, a social worker, helped him get the right paperwork completed before he died in January.

"It's an honorable farewell to people who have put their lives on the line for our freedom," Caddick said.