Headstones with wrong names and dates, misaligned rows and temporary grave markers that haven’t been replaced in more than half a century. Those were some of the problems found in two veterans cemeteries in Hawaii during a recent audit by the Department of Veterans Affairs watchdog.
The VA’s inspector general called for a review of Hawaii’s eight state veteran cemeteries after the audit of cemeteries nationwide found that the federal Veterans Cemetery Grants Program did not always award grants to correctly ensure that states were adhering to standards.
The report, which was published Thursday, singled out cemeteries in Hilo and Makawao as having what investigators considered to be “critical” problems, many of which appeared to go back decades.
“The team identified critical deficiencies including a lack of permanent or properly installed grave markers, inaccurate and missing maps of graves, no process for tagging caskets and urns, and inconsistent safety standards,” the report said.
The discoveries were part of an audit of nine different state cemeteries around the country that had received the federal grants.
“We accept this report and see it as being a helpful tool to identify systemic issues that have been very challenging to our state and respective county teams supporting this endeavor,” Ronald Han, director of the Hawaii Office of Veterans’ Services, said in an email.
The VA’s National Cemetery Administration oversees the operations 155 national cemeteries across the country, including the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Oahu’s Punchbowl Crater. It also sets regulations for state-administered veteran cemeteries and sometimes gives them grants for special projects, expansions, maintenance or other needs.
In Hawaii, those cemeteries are officially overseen by the state Office of Veterans’ Services, but the actual management of all but the Kaneohe State Veteran Cemetery falls to county governments.
Community members also frequently visit the local cemeteries, leaving flowers, flags, beers and other offerings to fallen comrades and loved ones. In May, members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hilo Post 3875 power-washed thousands of graves that had become covered in grime.
The VA inspectors found that the NCA had allowed the cemeteries it observed on Maui and Hawaii island to receive grants despite not addressing compliance issues raised multiple times. The report asserted that Hawaii’s Office of Veterans’ Services “did not insure that deficiencies were resolved.”
But Han said that the state had actually requested that the VA conduct a compliance review of all of the islands’ state cemeteries in 2015.
“Some of these cemeteries are close to 70 years old and have gone through many administration changes at the federal, state and county levels to support requirements for our veterans and eligible dependents who are interred there,” he said.
Altogether Hawaii’s state cemeteries received more than $7 million in federal grants in the 2016 fiscal year alone to support a mixture of renovations and maintenance. Since then Hilo received $870,278 and Makawao received $1,347,323 in grants for routine maintenance.
The audit team found no indications that funds were misused. It said the NCA generally ensured “that grant funds were used for their intended purpose” but “did not see to it that all state cemeteries were maintained in accordance with national shrine standards.”
In Hilo, the team found that 75 flat grave markers in its initial random sample “were not properly installed and were merely placed on the ground over the gravesite,” adding that “flat markers could be easily moved and placed over the wrong gravesite.”
At Makawao, the inspection team determined that many flat markers in a new section were not properly installed and were badly misaligned.
The report said that on Maui, the veterans cemetery supervisor told the VA inspectors that he was “experimenting with a new concrete-setting practice” and did not think tamping the ground for headstones was necessary, although a 2015 compliance review of Makawao noted that was mandated by NCA standards.
A before and after look at a headstone in Hilo cleaned by VFW volunteers in May. The headstone marks the grave of photographer Tim Wright’s father.
NCA shrine standards also require that cemeteries install permanent markers at gravesites within 60 days of interment. However, the team found numerous gravesites at Hilo and Makawao that had temporary markers beyond 60 days — sometimes even decades.
At Makawao, at least one temporary marker for a buried veteran had been there for 54 years. At Hilo, the gravesite of a veteran’s spouse had been left for 19 years with no name on it.
The team also found two gravesites with burial dates in 1963 and 1990 that were marked with wooden crosses rather than VA-issued headstones. Even records for the permanent markers sometimes had misspelled names and incorrect dates, according to the report.
It also said Hilo’s cemetery still lacked a gravesite layout plan and had no maps for visitors as of February 2020, four years after a previous NCA compliance review had cited the same problems.
Makawao had a map, but the team found that it had incorrect information, with many headstones appearing in different locations or not on the map at all.
“As a result of the discrepancies, the accuracy of burials cannot be fully assured, and subsequent interments may also be inaccurate,” the report said. “For example, a veteran could be buried with another veteran’s spouse.”
It also found no standardized process for tagging and labeling urns and caskets, warning that could lead to “an increased risk of burying the deceased in the wrong grave, especially if there are multiple open graves at the time of burial.”
The report also raised safety concerns, noting that national standards require open graves to “be protected by appropriate devices while unattended,” but that “the two Hawaiian cemeteries merely cover any open graves with a piece of plywood.”
Cemetery managers and staff interviewed by the audit team often demonstrated little or no knowledge of NCA standards, according to the report, which said the NCA had not ensured sufficient access to training.
The NCA offers free training on standards in St. Louis, Missouri, but most cemetery managers and staff who were interviewed had never attended due to the limited state funding for travel. In March, the federal grants began to include travel for training but offered no remote options.
The Hawaii County Department of Parks and Recreation told the VA investigators that the county does not have enough staff to meet NCA standards in Hilo because it doesn’t get funding from the state, according to the report.
Most of the cemeteries in Hawaii fall under the parks and recreation departments. But Maui’s Highways Division is responsible for the Makawao cemetery. Paul Barany, the county’s public works construction and maintenance superintendent, said he doesn’t know why that is.
“It’s a unique aspect of what we do for sure and as with anything you’re asked to do more with less,” Barany said in a telephone interview, adding that maintaining the cemetery “requires round the clock care and maintenance day in and day out.”
Han praised county workers for working hard with what they have, pointing out that there was no known disruption in burials for veterans during the pandemic.
He also pointed to an October 2020 satisfaction survey of state cemeteries that gave the Kaneohe veterans cemetery high marks from families. Han said Kaneohe “serves as a model of how we envision the performance of all of our state veterans cemeteries.”
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.