MINNEAPOLIS — Bill Bornetun, 81, a former sailor, was buried on a cold winter morning, the hard earth dusted by snow, with full military honors. His place in history was minor. But as the roll call of World War II veterans grows smaller by the day, the farewell he received at Fort Snelling National Cemetery was that of a hero.
Around his grave stood a dozen other veterans, members of the volunteer Memorial Rifle Squad, which has presided over more than 40,000 military funerals here in the last 25 years. Holding 1903 bolt-action Springfield rifles and the American flag, most of them were vets from the 1940s, average age 77, some with hearing aids and canes — and all firm in the belief that in the brotherhood of the military, veterans look out for veterans until the last shovelful of dirt fills the grave.
Clarence Kraemer, 77, who used to play in dance bands, bugled the 24 notes of taps, a haunting call born in the Civil War that echoed across this cemetery where, on average, 18 veterans a day are buried. August Joubert, 83, and Raymond Frisvoid, 72, folded the flag in 12 symbolic triangles — one representing belief in eternal life, another divine guidance. They handed it, stars facing up, to Bornetun’s daughter, Mary Mariette, with the words: "On behalf of the president, the armed forces of the United States and a grateful nation … "
Across the country, veterans are dying and being buried in such large numbers these days that the Department of Veterans Affairs has had to close or restrict burials in half the 120 cemeteries it operates. The reason is not that the country is again at war.
Demographics have finally caught up with a country where 25 million people — or about 1 in every 11 Americans — are veterans of military service. According to the VA, World War II-era veterans are dying at the rate of 1,075 a day, Korean War veterans at 305 a day and Vietnam War veterans at 200 a day.
"We’re losing our share too, three or four people a year, and we’ve got three in nursing homes," said George Weiss, 75, who founded the Memorial Rifle Squad in 1979 and has seen Fort Snelling grow to 158,000 grave sites. (It’s not expected to fill up until 2030.) "But we’ve never missed a funeral. One day last January, it was 25 below zero, and we did 14 funerals. ‘Course, that kind of cold takes something out of you at this age."
To maintain the tradition that honorably discharged veterans and their spouses and minor children have the right to free burial in a national cemetery, President Bush’s fiscal 2005 budget includes a $455 million request to undertake the largest expansion of the system since the Civil War.
The Department of Veterans Affairs spends $313 million, out of its $67 billion budget, on the national cemeteries.
The additional money is designed to increase the VA’s interment capacity by 85 percent and help fulfill its goal of having burial grounds within 75 miles of the country’s largest concentrations of veterans. Next year, cemeteries are scheduled to open in Sacramento, Calif., Atlanta, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and West Palm Beach, Fla.
"Why not just give a widow $300 and let her bury her husband in the local church cemetery?" said John Lawton, a senior official in the department’s National Cemetery Administration. "Economically, it would probably make sense. But in terms of — and this may sound corny — honoring the people who gave their all, the national cemeteries say we care. They say we take care of our dead. The cemeteries are a slice of history, a visible symbol of the place fallen soldiers hold in our hearts."
Lawton, who has five Purple Hearts, came close enough to death in Vietnam to speak with authority. Badly wounded and presumed dead after his outpost was overrun, he was covered with a poncho and stacked on a pile of dead soldiers to whom a chaplain was administering last rites. The chaplain removed the poncho from Lawton’s face, saw him stir and said: "What are you doing? You’re supposed to be dead."
At Quantico National Cemetery in Triangle, Va., John Brook, 52, a Marine in the Vietnam War, was digging fresh graves the other day with a backhoe. Winter’s grip had eased, and the earth was soft. As far as the eye could see, line after line of headstones stood as precisely spaced as a formation of soldiers. Artillery boomed from the firing range of an adjacent Marine base.
"When I first started working here, I kind of felt bad seeing all the graves," Brook said. "But you get over the gloom and doom. You realize these are brothers in arms. Really, it’s an honor to serve them every day. And I know guys like these will serve me when my time comes."
An hour’s drive south on Interstate 95 is Fort Harrison National Cemetery in Richmond, Va. Opened in 1866, it has been closed to burials since 1967, when the last of 1,112 graves filled up its 1.5 acres. The headstones speak of every major conflict from the Civil War to Vietnam, and include a once-segregated section where markers bear a name and the letters U.S.C.T. — U.S. Colored Troop. Three veterans tend to the cemetery grounds and administration.
"Even though we’re not doing any more burials, the cemetery will be here forever and forever," said director Homer Hardamon. "We are the perpetual caretakers. No national cemetery is ever abandoned. That would be unthinkable. This is hallowed ground, very sacred."
The national cemetery system was established in 1862, part of a veterans-benefit package designed, as President Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, "to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan."
The first 12 veterans’ graveyards were small — 10 acres at most — and placed near Civil War battlefields and hospitals. Of the initial 300,000 men buried, almost half were identified as unknown soldiers.
The years that followed brought perils Lincoln could not have imagined: seven major wars between 1898 and 2004 in which 42 million Americans would serve and 651,000 would die. Burying veterans became a growth industry, with national cemeteries today covering 14,000 acres. And the treatment of and respect given to veterans, in life and death, became a yardstick by which the nation judged its own character.
"A country that forgets its dead is on the downhill slide," said Archie Hazzard, 70, a member of the Fort Snelling honor guard. "You don’t have to harp on death, but you should remember with respect. It’s a mark of a civilized, decent nation."
In addition to the 120 VA-run national cemeteries, where 2.5 million veterans and their dependents are buried, there are 54 state cemeteries for veterans. Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C. — a separate entity operated by the Department of the Army — conducts more than 5,000 burials a year. It is expected to run out of space by 2025.
The National Park Service operates 14 military cemeteries, which include Civil War battlefields such as Gettysburg and Antietam and are generally closed to new burials. The American Battle Monuments Commission also maintains 24 cemeteries — largely filled with casualties from the two world wars — such as the cemeteries in Normandy, France, and Manila in the Philippines.
Today, about 10 percent of veterans request burial in a national cemetery, a figure that is on the rise. That, and the money being poured into the VA system, is a sign that the nation has reclaimed its traditional respect for Americans in uniform, a respect that was absent in some quarters during and after the Vietnam War. A recent Roper Poll found that 77 percent of Americans believed military officers were worthy of great or considerable esteem, the sixth-highest rating for any profession — behind scientist and firefighter but ahead of priest/minister and union leader.
The Memorial Rifle Squad at Fort Snelling is said to be the oldest and largest of the country’s many volunteer honor guards, drawn mostly from organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion. Its 120 members include a 40-year-old woman and two college students in their 20s who were recently discharged from the military.
"To be that young is almost a sin," said one World War II vet. Added Hugh Heckel, 76: "We’ll have to see if the next generation will step up to carry this one when we’re gone. But the two new fellas seem to fit right in, and that’s an encouraging sign."