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As Cemetery Building Booms, Veterans Hope To Be Buried Close To Home


There's an unusual building boom underway. Cemeteries for veterans are under construction all across the country. One of these sites is near an Air Force base in Goldsboro, N.C. Jay Price of member station WUNC traveled there and found these cemeteries will allow vets to be buried with honor closer to where they lived.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Sitting on the couch in his mobile home with a walker nearby, 68-year-old Michael Burris doesn't look like he's in a race, but he is, with time. Burris served a bloody tour north of Saigon as an Army medic at the peak of the Vietnam War. In recent months, he's been hospitalized three times and says he spent 33 days in a coma after a long operation. But he hopes to last long enough to claim a place in a new cemetery that's taking shape a few miles away.

MICHAEL BURRIS: Well, it's a place of special honor for me to be buried there, to be recognized as a veteran and for people to come by and see how beautiful it's going to be.

PRICE: He says many veterans think it's important to be buried with other vets, and there are practical considerations too.

BURRIS: There is no cost to veterans. Of course, you know how expensive burials are today, so that's a big burden lifted off my family.

PRICE: So burial in a military cemetery is an hour and a valuable benefit, but it isn't practical unless the burial site is close by. VA research has found that families don't want to use cemeteries more than 75 miles from their home. Ronald Walters, head of the VA's National Cemetery Administration says that's the big reason behind the cemetery building boom.

RONALD WALTERS: We have opened 19 new national cemeteries since 1999, and we'll be doing an additional 17 between now and the near future. That's an amazing expansion and unprecedented for our system.

PRICE: There are actually even more being built using VA money, cemeteries run by the states instead of the federal government. Here in Goldsboro, one of those state facilities, construction crews are carving new space for burial vaults out of the sandy soil. Waves of F-15 fighter jets pass overhead as they take off and land at nearby Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

TERESA WEST: On this side of the cemetery is the north side, and they just finished placing half of the precast concrete crypts which will be used for the in-ground casket burials.

PRICE: That's Teresa West, who helps oversee cemeteries run by North Carolina's division of Veterans Affairs. The one in Goldsboro is being built with a 5-and-a-half million dollar grant after strong local support pushed it up the VA's priority list. The jet noise makes this seem like an odd place for a cemetery, but the location helps the community because the land acts as part of a buffer around the Air Force base, making it less likely the base will be closed.

WEST: So on my right side here is the administration building.

PRICE: Finding the land is a key part of the process, whether near this Air Force base or anywhere across the country. In rural areas with too few veterans to justify full cemeteries, the VA is building veterans' sections at existing public and private burial grounds. One just opened in Montana, and seven more are on the way. And in major cities - Los Angeles, Chicago, New York - where land is scarce and expensive, the VA is planning buildings that will hold thousands of funeral urns. They'll be national cemeteries but solely for cremated remains. And where the cemeteries haven't been built yet, people are waiting.

SANDY LUGO: I've got, like, daughters and sons that have - their parent was a vet, and they've had them cremated. And they have the ashes in an urn at home waiting.

PRICE: That's Sandy Lugo, a county service officer in Goldsboro who helps veterans claim their benefits. The big thing, she says, is that the new cemetery is close by.

LUGO: It's right here. It's not on the other side of the state, you know, or two hours away. That is one thing that I do deal with, is people who don't want to bury their loved one that far away.

PRICE: And soon, they won't have to. The new cemetery is set to open in November. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Goldsboro, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jay Price is the military and veterans affairs reporter for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.

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