Legislation to restore Mare Island Naval Cemetery becomes a law

By THOMAS GASE | Times-Herald | Published: January 3, 2021

VALLEJO, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — The new year has already been a positive one for the Mare Island Naval Cemetery.

On Friday, U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D- St. Helena, announced that his legislation to repair and maintain the Mare Island Naval Cemetery in Vallejo has officially become law.

The bill, included in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), is a longtime priority of Thompson's and would take care of the local historic site for generations. The NDAA became law after the Senate overrode President Trump's veto.

"Today, I'm honored to celebrate an exceptional win for our district," Thompson said in a statement. "The Mare Island Naval Cemetery is a historic place, the final resting place for hundreds of our nation's service members. Sadly, it's fallen into disrepair over the years. I authored this legislation to ensure the cemetery is restored and maintained as a proper burial ground of our veterans. Thank you to Senator (Dianne) Feinstein who authored the Senate companion bill. Today it becomes law, and we can restore this space to its rightful beauty, both for those buried there and the veterans who want to visit."

Veteran and longtime military activist Nestor Aliga watched the announcement on television and was thrilled.

"I was very relieved," Aliga said. "It's been around three and half years since we started this effort and there have been a lot of obstacles, especially from the Veteran Affairs ( VA) Committee, which to me was a paradox when you think of their motto (To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan). Yet they specifically seemed to be forgetting about the veterans of Vallejo. They deserve as much respect as anyone."

The Fiscal Year 21 National Defense Authorization Act includes Section 9107, a provision that starts the one- to two-year process to transfer the Mare Island Naval Cemetery.

It is the oldest naval cemetery on the West Coast and has been designated as a National Historic Landmark. It has three Medal of Honor recipients — James Cooney, Alexander Parker and William Halford.

In December, Thompson announced that his legislation to repair and maintain the Mare Island Naval Cemetery had been included in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) Conference Report.

Thompson first introduced the bill called H.R. 5588 in April of 2018. The bill said the cemetery would specifically be placed under the purview of the National Cemetery Administration. The VA would pay no fee to acquire the land, but would assume the obligation of maintaining the cemetery in the future.

The Mare Island Naval Cemetery has gone through a major restoration. Many trees that used to surround the cemetery have been removed, as well as a portion of the white picket fence that surrounded it, although portions of the fence will be but back after the drainage system is repaired. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, repairs for the cemetery have been slowed down.

In September, the Department of Defense's Innovative Readiness Training (IRT) Program resumed construction at the Mare Island Preserve and Naval Cemetery. The IRT project includes grading, installation of drainage systems, minor restoration of burial sites, and fence repair throughout the area.

On Veterans Day of 2020, many people attending the ceremony there marveled at how much progress has been made on historic site, including Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis.

But it wasn't always that way. In March 2017, retired U.S. Navy Captain Ralph Parrott of Virginia visited the cemetery and was appalled at its dilapidated condition. Capt. Parrott and Dep. Asst. Secretary of the Navy Karnig Ohannessian assisted the City of Vallejo in applying for the Department of Defense Innovative Readiness Training.

On Friday, Parrott made a statement on the passing of the law.

"This action is very good news for the future of the Mare Island Naval Cemetery," Parrott said. "For the past three years a small group of older veterans located in California and in the Washington DC area have been working in conjunction with Congressman Mike Thompson, Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of the Navy to secure the future maintenance, restoration and preservation of this historic military burial ground."

Aliga gave thanks to many people, including www.VallejoVetsBuilding.org veterans, the 55,000 that signed a Change.org petition, http://chn.ge/2BUHBjI, the unwavering support of The American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars.

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