Foon Rhee

The California military cemetery that became a national shame

The Mare Island Naval Cemetery is full of broken and toppled headstones.
The Mare Island Naval Cemetery is full of broken and toppled headstones. Courtesy of Thomas Jamison

As on every Memorial Day, small flags will be placed next to neat, respectful rows of headstones at military cemeteries across America.

Neat and respectful is not how you would describe Mare Island Naval Cemetery – a forsaken plot of hallowed ground that fell between the cracks of Pentagon base closings and the city of Vallejo’s bankruptcy.

The oldest military cemetery on the West Coast is in utter disrepair. It is the final resting place for 800-plus veterans, including a few who fought in the War of 1812 and three Medal of Honor recipients. The daughter of Francis Scott Key, who wrote “The Star Spangled Banner,” is buried there, too.

But there’s a glimmer of hope that it could look a lot better by next Memorial Day.

 
Opinion

Bob Wylie, a 79-year-old Navy veteran who lives in Loomis, is working with veterans in Washington, D.C., and Vallejo to try to fix what they properly call a “national shame.”

Wylie spent a little time on Mare Island, but didn’t realize what bad shape the cemetery was in until he read a local newspaper story in March. As a member of a state veterans advisory council, he went to look for himself. He was shocked and “extremely upset” by what he found – cracked and toppled headstones, downed tree limbs and other damage from the 2014 Napa earthquake.

He and the other vets want the 2.4-acre cemetery transferred to the Department of Veterans Affairs, and they have made some headway.

The Vallejo City Council voted to ask the federal government to retake the cemetery without demanding any compensation. Mare Island was deeded to the city in 1996 during the nationwide base closings. The cash-strapped city, which declared bankruptcy in 2008, fell down on maintenance.

On April 23, Rep. Mike Thompson, a St. Helena Democrat, introduced H.R. 5588, which would direct the VA secretary to reach an agreement with Vallejo for the transfer and then maintain the cemetery as a “national shrine.” On May 17, Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced a companion bill, S. 2881, which Sen. Kamala Harris is co-sponsoring.

In the state Capitol, Sen. Bill Dodd, a Napa Democrat, has introduced a resolution of support. And about 55,000 people have signed an online petition, which will be submitted to Congress.

But even if Congress approves the transfer, it could take several years for the VA to come up with a plan, secure the funding and finish the restoration.

So Feinstein, Thompson and Harris are working on a temporary fix. They are jointly urging the Department of Defense to accept Vallejo’s application for a training program that could lead to at least some repairs in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. A survey crew visited the cemetery on May 2, so officials are optimistic. If approved, military engineers could get the cemetery into respectable condition before the possible transfer to the VA for permanent upkeep.

“The cemetery’s current state is not a fitting tribute to the service and sacrifices of the men and women buried there,” Feinstein said in a statement.

While it’s not the long-term solution sought by Wylie, this approach would also avoid the uncertainty of D.C. politics. He says he “can’t imagine” that the transfer bill would fail. “Who’s going to vote against restoring a national cemetery?”

Then again, inexplicable things do happen in the nation’s capital – even when it involves the final resting place for veterans.

Just ask Hmong veterans who live in the Central Valley and their supporters. They are still seeking an act of Congress to allow some 6,000 Hmong veterans, who fought alongside American soldiers in Vietnam, to be buried in national cemeteries.

Rep. Jim Costa, a Fresno Democrat who counts thousands of Hmong among his constituents, has introduced legislation each session since 2013 – the latest is H.R. 4716 – but without success.

On this Memorial Day, we should remember that the Hmong vets have been waiting too long. So have the sailors buried at Mare Island and their descendants.

Foon Rhee: 916-321-1913, @foonrhee

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