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Headstone of a fallen German WWII POW.
Headstone of a fallen German WWII POW. (Wikicommons)

WASHINGTON — In an about-face, the Department of Veterans Affairs decided Monday to remove three gravestones etched with swastikas from VA-operated cemeteries.

The decision reverses what the VA said last week. After calls to remove the stones, the department first insisted it would continue to preserve them “like every past administration.” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie then told lawmakers Thursday he favored an approach that would keep the gravestones but would add historical context in an effort to educate Americans about the Holocaust.

Two gravestones of German prisoners of war are in Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas, and one is in Fort Douglas Post Cemetery in Salt Lake City, Utah. The graves are placed among those of American veterans, some of whom fought against Nazi Germany in World War II.

The gravestones were discovered recently by a retired colonel visiting his Jewish grandfather’s grave at the San Antonio cemetery. The finding prompted the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which attempts to protect religious freedom for service members, to call for the VA to remove them.

During a hearing of the House Committee on Appropriations on Thursday, Democrats and Republicans called on the VA to replace the three gravestones. When Wilkie argued that the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 would prevent the department from removing the stones, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., criticized Wilkie for “hiding behind” the policy.

Now, the department says it will “begin taking the required steps” to legally replace the stones with others that don’t include swastikas or other Nazi inscriptions. The VA wants to preserve the headstones in the National Cemetery Administration’s history collection.

Wilkie also wants to install signs at all national cemeteries where foreign prisoners of war were buried, explaining why they are there. In addition to the Texas and Utah cemeteries, German POWs were buried at 11 other national cemeteries in the United States. The gravestones at those sites are not etched with swatstikas.

“Americans must always remember the horror of the Nazi regime and why so many Americans sacrificed so much to free the world from its reign of terror,” Wilkie said in a statement Monday. “It is understandably upsetting to our veterans and their families to see Nazi inscriptions near those who gave their lives for this nation. That’s why VA will initiate the process required to replace these POW headstones.” Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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