An Afghanistan War veteran turned Republican congressman is criticizing the Department of Veterans Affairs for continuing to limit attendance at veterans’ funerals due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, calling it a “disservice” to the sacrifices of those former troops.
But VA officials said some of those limits have already been relaxed, and department cemeteries are simply following state guidelines in an effort to keep mourners and the community safe.
On Tuesday, Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., sent a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie asking for him to allow deceased veterans to receive “the proper memorial service they deserve” by easing restrictions at the cemeteries.
In March, National Cemetery Administration officials halted all burial services at VA sites in response to the fast-spreading coronavirus outbreak. That blanket ban was lifted in June, but most sites still limit gatherings to 10 or fewer individuals.
Mast, who lost both of his legs to an insurgent’s roadside bomb while serving with the Army, said he believes it is time for that policy to end, too.
“As you know, dozens of my fellow lawmakers attended a funeral service last week in Atlanta, Georgia to honor the late Congressman John Lewis,” Mast wrote in his letter. “Meanwhile VA’s National Cemetery Administration policy empowers cemeteries to restrict the number of attendees for veterans’ committal services to 10 people — just a small fraction of those in attendance at Rep. Lewis’s service.
“If our country’s politicians can gather in large numbers to pay their respects, certainly our veterans deserve at least as much, if not more.”
The large crowds at Lewis’ funeral have become a political talking point for conservative critics of congressional Democrats, even as Republican House members have fought against proxy voting and remote hearings put in place by Democratic leaders in an effort to minimize personal contact on Capitol Hill.
VA press secretary Christina Noel said in response to Mast’s letter that many VA cemetery sites have begun easing those restrictions, but rules vary depending on different rules in different parts of the country.
“The number of attendees permitted at VA committal services varies based on state and local guidelines for gathering sizes and the ability of the cemetery to accommodate attendees while maintaining physical distancing,” she said. “Nowhere will the number permitted to attend be fewer than 10, but many locations are allowing more than that.”
The larger goal, she noted, is to “ensure veterans and their loved ones are cared for properly and are not at risk of contracting COVID-19. All department policies are geared toward that end during this important time.”
Many public buildings — including bathrooms and information centers — at the cemetery sites remain closed. Families are allowed to place flowers on veterans gravesites, but cemetery staff will not assist in that work.
VA officials have allowed families mourning the loss of a loved one to postpone any burial services until larger gatherings are permitted. Individuals who do attend commitment services are required to wear face masks and maintain at least six feet of distance from other attendees.
The number of cases of coronavirus has spiked across the country over the summer, but some states have shown signs of leveling off in recent weeks. More than 4.7 million individuals have been infected and more than 155,000 have died from complications from the virus.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.