Mare Island Naval Cemetery getting more than $200K federal annually

Between 1858 and 1921, the Mare Island Naval Cemetery in Vallejo, Calif., had 860 veterans buried there. In addition, nearly 100 plots at the site are the graves of military spouses, civilians who worked on the island, children and others. One of a few civilian family plots, the Sawyers, is surrounded by the remnants of an iron railing. The Sawyers were the base’s first shopkeepers and lived in one of Mare Island’s first homes. Their grandson, also buried there, died at 20 months.


By RACHEL RASKIN-ZRIHEN | The Times-Herald | Published: July 13, 2019

VALLEJO, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — The deteriorating Mare Island Naval Cemetery will likely get a much-needed boost with the House passage late Thursday of Rep. Mike Thompson’s amendment to a bill that provides $250,000 annually for its upkeep, his office announced.

The bill it amends passed Friday and now must clear the Senate.

Though this is a positive development, those fighting to restore the oldest Naval cemetery on the West Coast ultimately hope to have it taken over by the Veterans Administration.

The just-passed National Defense Authorization Act is one of at least five courses of action those working to save and transform the Mare Island Naval Cemetery are considering.

“I am excited to announce that my amendment to help repair and restore the Mare Island Cemetery passed the House,” Thompson said in a statement. “This amendment authorizes the Secretary of Defense to provide up to $250,000 each year to maintain and operate the Mare Island Naval Cemetery.”

It will require the city of Vallejo to designate a nonprofit historic preservation organization to administer the funds, he said, but doesn’t prevent the city from raising additional funds, and won’t impact the Innovative Readiness Training work at the cemetery scheduled for next year, he said.

“This amendment is just one of many ways I am working to ensure the cemetery is restored so it may be a proper resting place for the hundreds of service members buried there,” Thompson said. “In addition to securing the IRT program, I am also continuing to work to add co-sponsors to my bill to transfer control of the cemetery and, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, to build support in the Senate. This is an important cause and one that we must achieve in order to honor those for whom the cemetery is their final resting place.”

In anticipation of receiving the $250,000 annually, the Vallejo City Council in May put out a Request for Qualifications for the Mare Island Regional Park Operations and Management.

The IRT program, which would supply military personnel to repair some elements of the cemetery, was delayed one year to allow time for a historic consultation preservation analysis to be done, as outlined in Federal law, Thompson spokesman Alex Macfarlane said.

It’s a short-term remedy which will make initial fixes, including repairing or replacing fencing, a flagpole, and the damaged drainage system. But, ultimately, the goal is to get the VA to take control of the site. The VA, however, is balking, saying doing this would set a bad precedent, inviting other cities saddled with the upkeep of military cemeteries to try to pass those off to the VA, also, though there are only five, much smaller ones of those, according to the people fighting for the MINC.

Feinstein called the amendment’s passage good news, but noted that she’s not done fighting either.

“I remain committed to restoring the Mare Island Naval Cemetery and properly honoring the more than 800 veterans buried there,” she said in a statement. “In its current state, the cemetery is no longer an appropriate and sufficient memorial to their service. Congressman Thompson and I have introduced legislation to transfer the Mare Island Naval Cemetery from the City of Vallejo to the Department of Veterans Affairs and my office is working with the Senate Veteran’s Affairs Committee to bring it before the committee. Moving the cemetery to VA control, the resources of the federal government will be available for cemetery maintenance.”

The effort to save and restore the cemetery became necessary when it fell into disrepair after the Mare Island Naval Shipyard closed in 1996, and the Navy turned it over to the City of Vallejo without a mechanism in place for maintaining the cemetery.

The situation came to the attention of Ralph Parrott, a retired Washington, D.C.-area Navy Captain, when he happened upon the site during a day trip while on a layover at Travis Air Force Base in 2017. Finding the spectacle of tilted and broken gravestones and dilapidated fencing appalling, Parrott set about finding allies in the effort to right what he considers a serious wrong.

He says he’s not celebrating yet.

“Of course I am happy,” he said. “However, there still needs to be the long-term solution that will come with the passage of Congressman Thompson’s and Senator Feinstein’s bills that will ensure in law the long-term maintenance and restoration of the cemetery to a standard required by such a historical site. My fondest hope is for the Congress to pass S. 127 and HR. 578 and my colleagues and I will keep working to see it happen.”

Nestor Aliga, a retired U.S. Army Col. who’s helped spearhead the effort from Vallejo, said he hopes the struggle is nearing a resolution.

“We want the city of Vallejo to transfer MINC and adjacent land back to the Navy; get National Defense Authorization Act funding for the Navy to fix MINC — similar to the Mare Island Rifle Range remediation, and then, for the Navy to administratively transfer MINC back to the VA in accordance with the original intent of Public Law No: 93-43 (06/18/1973) National Cemeteries Act,” he said, adding that he’d like to see the “U.S. Veterans Affairs to give funding to the State of California Veterans Affairs (CalVet) for a local ‘national shrine subcontract’ for repairing and maintaining MINC. (VA currently gives CalVet some funds to maintain Yountville Cemetery in Napa.)”

Failing this, there’s the possibility of President Donald Trump issuing an Executive Order, similar to one that provides for the Permanent American Cemetery in the Republic of Panama, to “transfer MINC to the VA as soon as practical.”

“Of course, we are NOT giving up on H.R.578 and S.127 which we hope will be passed in the 116th Congress.”

©2019 Times-Herald (Vallejo, Calif.)
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