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VA vows help for bill to remove murderers from national cemeteries

Nov. 1, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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The Veterans Affairs Department is promising to work with Congress to create a process for removing a veteran’s remains from a national cemetery if the deceased may have committed murder.

The pending bill, S 1471, would apply to all future burials, but its genesis is the 2012 burial at Fort Custer National Cemetery in Michigan of an Army veteran who in May 2012 allegedly murdered an Indianapolis woman and shot three other people before committing suicide.

Afghanistan veteran Michael L. Anderson is accused by police of a shooting spree at an Indiana apartment complex that ended with his apparent suicide. When Anderson was buried a week later at the 770-acre VA cemetery in Michigan, VA officials knew nothing about his possible involvement in the murder of Alicia Dawn Koehl and injuries to others.

When Koehl’s family discovered Anderson was buried with full military honors in a national veterans cemetery, they asked VA to remove the remains, but authorities said their hands were tied, according to lawmakers who have been pushing for a change in burial policy.

Current federal law prohibits burial or internment of remains for veterans found guilty of a state or federal capital crime. The law also bars burial of anyone who committed a capital crime but was not tried because they died before prosecution. They also do not have to have been charged with a crime.

The law also bars interments if there is “clear and convincing evidence” provided to cemetery officials that the veteran committed a murder.

Current law does not allow for removal of remains after burial, which is what happened in Anderson’s case when VA officials said there was nothing they could do after the burial.

The Indiana congressional delegation is trying to get the law changed, and can expect help crafting a fix from the VA. Robert Jesse, VA’s deputy undersecretary for health, said Oct. 30 there are “technical” concerns with the bill being considered by the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, but added that VA “will be glad to work” with lawmakers.

The Alicia Dawn Koehl Respect for National Cemeteries Act would require removal of Anderson’s remains from the Michigan veterans’ cemetery. Jesse said the procedure requires Anderson’s family to be notified, and for the remains to either be given to the next-of-kin or buried at another location chosen by VA if the next-of-kin is unavailable.

For any similar situations in the future, the bill would create a process for cemetery officials to reconsider internment decisions, allowing the removal of remains and VA-provided headstones or grave markers for reburial outside of national cemeteries.

Reasons would be the same as the current burial ban — for those convicted of a capital crime or, in cases were death prevented a trial, when evidence of murder is provided to cemetery officials.

Families would be notified before remains are removed and given the opportunity to appeal the decision.

The policy would apply at Arlington National Cemetery and any veterans’ national cemetery.

The bill would leave the federal government responsible for paying to remove remains or markers and potentially for reburial at another location if a veteran’s next-of-kin does not assume responsibility. Jesse said VA was working on cost estimates.

Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., the bill’s chief sponsor, urged the committee to act. “The victims and family members of this tragic shooting have suffered enough and should not have to wait another year for their request to be met,” Coats said. “The families have had to go through an excruciating and unproductive process in trying to right a wrong.”

VA officials claim that once Anderson was buried, current law provides no authority for the cemetery to dig up remains and moving them somewhere else, Coats said. His bill and a similar bill introduced in the House by Rep. Susan Brooks, R-Ind., would provide that authority, he said.

Raymond Kelley of Veterans of Foreign Wars said the circumstances of Anderson’s shooting spree “made it difficult for VA” to know before burial of the murder, but he is not certain the bill would prevent it from happening again.

Current burial procedures require families to provide a death certificate and evidence of military service and to answer questions about the veteran’s marital status, location of the death and choice of cemetery.

“Nowhere ... does the National Cemetery Administration ask a question regarding criminal activity,” Kelley said, suggesting an additional question be added regarding capital crimes.

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