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Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., talks with VA Secretary Robert Wilkie before a Capitol Hill hearing in 2019. At a hearing this week, Wasserman Schultz called the VA's dedcision to keep maintaining tombstones adorned with swastikas "deeply troubling."
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., talks with VA Secretary Robert Wilkie before a Capitol Hill hearing in 2019. At a hearing this week, Wasserman Schultz called the VA's dedcision to keep maintaining tombstones adorned with swastikas "deeply troubling." (Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie argued Thursday against calls from lawmakers to remove German soldiers’ gravestones etched with swastikas from VA-operated cemeteries.

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.

During a hearing of the House Committee on Appropriations on Thursday, Democrats and Republicans called on the VA to replace the three gravestones.

“This is deeply troubling,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla. “These graves sit right alongside men and women who fought for our country and our ideals. There’s no excuse for the VA to continue to maintain them.”

Wilkie favored an approach that would keep the gravestones but would add historical context in an effort to educate Americans about the Holocaust.

“This is my view, that we cannot erase the horror and ignore it,” Wilkie said. “The last thing we need to do is not remind America of the horrors of antisemitism. Erasing these headstones removes them from memory.”

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.

In a previous statement, the VA’s National Cemetery Administration said it “will continue to preserve these headstones, like every past administration has.”

The VA argued that the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 would prevent the department from removing the stones. On Thursday, Wasserman Schultz criticized Wilkie for “hiding behind” the preservation act and said the VA was misinterpreting the policy.

Reps. Nita Lowey, R-N.Y., and John Carter, R-Texas, also urged Wilkie to remove the gravestones.

“I don’t think they should be displayed to the American public,” Carter said. “I think you should replace these stones with just a regular stone. Say they’re German POWs, but that’s it. And take all those Nazi symbols off.”

In addition to the Texas and Utah cemeteries, German POWs were buried at 11 other national cemeteries in the U.S. The gravestones at those sites are not etched with swatstikas.

At the end of Thursday’s discussion, Wilkie said he would consider options, including relocating the gravestones from the burial sites of Americans who died in World War II.

“Because of the times we live in where we have seen antisemitism reach our shores, I want to make sure that the VA is doing the best we can to educate and remind people why the veterans in those cemeteries fought against that horror,” Wilkie said.

wentling.nikki@stripes.com Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.
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