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Future of Mare Island veterans cemetery sparks debate between vets and history buffs

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A 164-year-old cemetery on Mare Island that is the resting place of more than 800 veterans is gaining attention in Congress, where North Bay lawmakers and veterans groups are urging the federal government to take over the aging property and restore it like a national shrine.

But volunteers with the Mare Island Shoreline Heritage Preserve are pushing back against lawmakers’ characterizations that the condition of the cemetery is a disgrace to veterans, describing it as a historic resource worth preserving close to its original form.

The cemetery, created in 1854, lies just southeast of Sonoma County and has been owned by the city of Vallejo for the last two decades. Its 996 confirmed grave sites hold the remains of three Medal of Honor winners, the daughter of “Star Spangled Banner” composer Francis Scott Key and more than 800 veterans interred there before burials ceased in 1921.

“It’s in really deplorable condition. We need to get it to the point where it respects the people, the 900 people, that lie in rest there,” said state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, who has authored legislation supporting the transfer of the cemetery to the federal government.

Volunteers who help maintain the cemetery said they relish the old-time charm and historical richness of the site, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places along with the entire area of the shipyard.

“Think of it as an archaeological site,” said Brian Collett, co-founder of the Mare Island Shoreline Heritage Preserve. “And we’re going to make (it) all shiny and new.”

The U.S. Navy transferred the property in 1996 to Vallejo, which has maintained the plot on a limited budget. The city’s Public Works department handles maintenance inside the cemetery, aided by volunteers with the preserve, a nonprofit that helped open the site to the public in 2007 and hosts monthly tours of the cemetery.

The debate over the future of the cemetery was revived in 2017, when retired Gen. Ralph Parrott visited the site. He was distraught to find toppled gravestones, sinkholes and a fallen tree that had taken out a section of fence. Parrott called it a “disgrace to the honor of our country” and published a letter in the Vallejo Times-Herald to bring attention to the matter.

In April, the Vallejo City Council voted to offer the cemetery to the Department of Veterans Affairs, spurring lawmakers in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., to draft a series of bills that would facilitate the shift of ownership.

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, brought the initial piece of legislation, H.R. 5588, to the House floor in April, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein brought a similar bill to the Senate floor. In California, Dodd wrote a supportive piece of legislation that passed the state Assembly.

Legislators hope a transfer of ownership to the VA’s National Cemetery Administration would bring funding for repairs and ongoing maintenance of the site.

“I think this is a reflection on how we value our military, particularly those deceased members of the military,” Dodd said.

Collett said the idea was “ridiculous” and wants lawmakers and veterans to coordinate their efforts with the National Park Service, which shares jurisdiction over the preserve and has standards for historical resource management.

Myrna Hayes, co-founder of the preserve, is concerned the historical character of the cemetery could be lost if the VA assumes ownership and delivers on its mandate to replace headstones and bring the grounds up to “national shrine conditions.”

“That’s like pulling out all your teeth. They’re part of your being,” Hayes said. “It takes away from the historical significance of the place.”

Hayes agrees that the site needs funding for short and long-term care, but believes that a public/private partnership or endowment would be a better approach.

She said she’s kept the preserve open to the public through donations from private citizens and businesses over the past 11 years, and would like to expand fundraising efforts going forward.

But many supporting the VA acquisition of the plot are in favor of replacing the headstones and bringing the cemetery up to national standards.

“If the headstones are damaged and not in good condition, I would suggest they need to be replaced,” Dodd said.

More than 55,000 people have signed a petition created by former Army Col. Nestor Aliga, urging President Donald Trump to repossess the cemetery. Aliga says he’s visited cemeteries all over the world and the Mare Island cemetery gives the impression the United States is a “Third World country.”

National Cemetery Administration staff helped the Vallejo apply for a Defense Department program that provides funding and engineering support from the National Guard. A decision on the city’s application is expected next month and could jump-start repair efforts in the next fiscal year, which begins in October.

Congressional legislation is being reviewed by the Senate and House Veterans Affairs committees. Thompson, a Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient, said he has 64 co-sponsors on both sides of the aisle. Even if the bill falters, he said he will continue to advocate for the cemetery’s refurbishment.

“What I’m trying to do is get the cemetery fixed. So any effort that we put forward to create momentum to get where we need to be is my goal,” Thompson said.

You can reach Staff Writer Meghan Herbst at 707-521-5250 or meghan.herbst@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Megeherbst.

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