By Congressman Max Cleland
The following article originally appeared in the September 1998 Issue of the Georgia Policy Review. On August 2, 1998, Senator Cleland, Senator Paul Coverdell and Congressman Bob Barr, with the support of Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, joined Veterans Affairs Commissioner Pete Wheeler in launching a project that will hopefully lead to a new veterans cemetary in the metropolitan Atlanta area.
One of the greatest honors our country provides for a veteran’s service is the opportunity to be buried in a
national cemetery. It is logical that just like everyone else, a veteran’s family wants to have the grave site of their loved one close by. They want to be able to visit as frequently as they wish to pay respects, to place flowers or a folded American flag by the headstone of their father, mother, sister or brother. In my opinion, Georgia veterans’ families deserve such consideration.
The current veterans population in Georgia is estimated to be nearly 700,000, with over 400,000 estimated to be residing in the Metro Atlanta area. Our state currently has two cemeteries designated specifically for veterans, in Marietta and Andersonville. Marietta National Cemetery has been full since 1970, and Andersonville National Historic Cemetery is located in Southwest Georgia, at a considerable distance from most of the state’s veterans’ population.
The large population of veterans’ families in Metro Atlanta and North Georgia is not being served, and we need to change that. Abraham Lincoln once said: “All that a man hath will he give for hislife; and while all contribute of their substance the soldier puts his life at stake, and often yields it up in his country’s cause. The highest merit, then, is due to the soldier.” We owe it to our state’s veterans to give them the option of a national veterans cemetery close to their home.
I have been pursuing this matter for over 20 years, since I was head of the Veterans’ Administration, now called the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA). Nationally, there are over 300,000 vacancies in national cemeteries for veterans, but in Georgia, there are no such vacancies. The only option these veterans have is burial in Andersonville, a national historic cemetery which is operated by the National Parks Service, not the VA, and is more than 100 miles away from the Metro Atlanta area. This deeply concerns me, especially when one considers that Georgia has the highest rate of growth in terms of military retirees in the nation, and that the majority of these veterans reside in Metro Atlanta. We really must do better for our veterans.
In 1979, when I was head of the VA, our studies documented that the Atlanta metropolitan area was the area having the largest veterans’ population in the country without a national cemetery. Later that same year, I announced that Metro Atlanta had been chosen as the site for a new VA cemetery, which was to be opened in late 1983. The Atlanta location was chosen after an exhaustive review of many sites, including consideration of environmental, access and land use factors, and most importantly, the density of veterans’ population. Unfortunately, the land transfer for the site was blocked by a House Subcommittee and the Reagan Administration later withdrew approval of the Atlanta site.
Since then, Atlanta has repeatedly made the list of the top five geographic areas in the United States most in need of an additional national cemetery. The establishment of a new veterans national cemetery in the Atlanta metropolitan area is one of my highest legislative priorities.
I plan to work with the VA and my colleagues in Congress to secure approval for this critical project. Congressman Bob Barr (R-GA) will take the lead on this project in the House. Our goal is to build local and Congressional support this year, leading to passage of our bill in the next session of Congress, and opening of a new national cemetery in Metropolitan Atlanta by 2001.