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‘Abandoned' Philippines cemetery rankles vets

Dec. 4, 2012 - 02:48PM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 4, 2012 - 02:48PM  |  
A headstone for Army Staff Sgt. Hershel Lee Covery at Clark Veterans Cemetery in the Philippines shows how nearly half of his headstone was covered by volcanic ash after the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo.
A headstone for Army Staff Sgt. Hershel Lee Covery at Clark Veterans Cemetery in the Philippines shows how nearly half of his headstone was covered by volcanic ash after the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo. (Clark Veterans Cemetery Restoration Association)
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When he walks through the dilapidated Clark Veterans Cemetery in the Philippines, Dennis Wright says he feels one overriding emotion: anger.

Before World War II, more than 5,000 soldiers, sailors, Marines and Army civilians were buried at several cemeteries in the Philippines. Later, those remains were sent to Clark in order to make room for a cemetery for World War II fallen. In the ensuing years, military dependents were buried at Clark.

Then in 1991, a massive volcano eruption covered the roughly 8,600 tombstones there in more than a foot of ash, just as the U.S. was leaving the Philippines and Clark Air Base.

More than 20 years later, the gravestones lie halfway buried in ash and weeds. The local Veterans of Foreign Wars post has taken responsibility for maintaining the cemetery, but the donations it receives allow members only to keep the weeds at bay, said Wright, whose development company has offices in the Philippines and has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars for improvements.

To Wright, the troops, veterans and military family members buried at Clark Veterans Cemetery have been abandoned by the U.S. government.

"We take all these guys who died from 1900 to World War II who were there, they were happy, they were resting in peace we get them up, we march them to Clark, we put them in a boring field … and then we forget these guys?" Wright said. "Now, I'm telling you, when you sit there and look at that, it can only do one thing to you: Make you mad and make you angry that our government has got 8,600 U.S. servicemen and their dependents who are buried at Clark who were abandoned and then forgotten."

The callousness toward those interred at Clark Veterans Cemetery stands in stark contrast to the World War II fallen who occupy their former resting places, said Wright, a retired Navy captain.

"Is [a] World War II dead soldier more important than World War I dead?" he said. "Is he more important than Vietnam War dead? Is he more important than an Iraqi War dead?"

It would take about $2.5 million to get rid of all the ash and reset the tombstones, but the local VFW takes in between $25,000 and $30,000 in donations each year, so it can only maintain the cemetery as is, Wright said. Moreover, most of the VFW members are in their 60s, so they have problems keeping up the cemetery.

"It shouldn't be done by a bunch of aging veterans who aren't getting any younger," he said.

That's why Wright is chairman of the Clark Veterans Cemetery Restoration Association, a nonprofit organization advocating for the American Battle Monuments Commission to take over responsibility for the cemetery.

Proposed legislation in the Senate would do just that and allocate $5 million to renovate the cemetery, but Wright does not expect the measure to pass during the current legislative session.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., who introduced a bill this year to have the American Battle Monuments Commission assume responsibility for the cemetery, said the U.S. government has a "moral responsibility" to take care of veterans cemeteries.

"There's no reason that the brave service members buried at Clark should be deprived of the honor they have earned and that veterans at other cemeteries are afforded," she testified before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee in June. "It's time for the U.S. government to fulfill its responsibility to care for this sacred ground."

The bill was co-sponsored by Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, who said the U.S. government needs to respect veterans after they have been laid to rest.

"This cemetery has been unjustly left behind and it is a disservice to veterans who have passed and those living all over the world," Begich said in a statement to Air Force Times.

One of the most impassioned advocates for having the monuments commission take the cemetery under its purview has been Nathan Beeler, an 11-year-old from Avon, Ind., who has traveled to Washington to lobby Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and other top lawmakers.

"I got involved with this in third grade because we were randomly browsing through the Internet and we went over a little article talking about a veterans cemetery buried in disgrace, and so I felt angered because our veterans died for our freedom and when they're buried in disgrace, it doesn't make sense, so that's why I started to do something," he said.

When Beeler talks to members of Congress about the proposed legislation for Clark Veterans Cemetery, he makes sure to include that the bill is "budget neutral." As the story about the cemetery gets out, the bill has a better chance of passing.

"One person will be touched by it and then they'll talk to more and more people, and I know many people were touched by it, so I feel very optimistic," Beeler said.

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