By CARL STODDARD
Capital News Service
LANSING — More than 640,000 veterans live in Michigan, and nearly all are entitled to a benefit reserved for them — burial at a national cemetery with military honors.
But many Michigan veterans are unaware of that benefit or many others available to them.
In Michigan, burials are provided at two national cemeteries operated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs:
● The Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly Township, about 15 miles south of Flint.
● The Fort Custer National Cemetery in Augusta, about 6 miles west of Battle Creek.
At both cemeteries, burials as well as headstones or markers are offered at no charge to veterans and their spouses.
Jerry Gorski, commander of the Lansing-based Veterans of Foreign Wars of Michigan, said most of his 45,000 members are aware of burial and other benefits available from the VA. Members of other veteran organizations in Michigan also are aware of their benefits, he said.
It’s the veterans who aren’t members of any veteran group in Michigan who are missing out on the information, Gorski said.
“If they don’t belong to any organization, they aren’t aware of the benefits, and not just burial benefits, from the VA,” he said. “It’s sad.”
Ronald Runyan, state adjutant for the Lansing-based American Legion Department of Michigan, said he believes the majority of his members also know the benefits of the national cemeteries.
What some American Legion members and their families may not know, Runyan said, are that some funeral costs are not covered by the VA.
Those costs can run into thousands of dollars, said Runyan, who urges military family members to get information about military funerals ahead of time.
He said the American Legion of Michigan is available to assist all veterans, not just its 60,000 members, with questions about funerals or other issues.
Approximately 641,000 U.S. military veterans were living in Michigan in 2015, according to the VA, giving Michigan the 11th largest veteran population in the country. Despite that, Michigan ranked near the bottom nationally in terms of spending per vet, the VA said.
The Fort Custer cemetery, founded in 1943, has more than 30,000 people interred there and is adding about 1,300 a year, said Peter Sardo, director of the cemetery.
“We do a lot of outreach to inform the community” about the cemetery and its services, Sardo said.
Still, only about 3 to 5 percent of area veterans use the Fort Custer cemetery, he said. National cemetery officials are not concerned about running out of space for these veterans anytime soon.
American veterans aren’t the only ones buried at Fort Custer. During World War II, more than 5,000 German prisoners of war were held there and 26 are buried there. Ten died of natural causes. Another 16 died when their truck collided with a train as they were returning from a work detail near Blissfield, the VA said.
The Great Lakes cemetery opened in 2005. More than 32,000 people are interred there, including 4,064 added last year, said Roy Luera, director of the cemetery.
Most of the veterans and spouses buried at the cemetery were from Michigan, Luera said.
Because not all veterans are aware of the VA cemeteries and the services they offer, he said he spreads the word to people in the VA system, funeral homes and veteran organizations such as the American Legion and VFW.
Michigan’s veteran population is significantly older than the state’s overall population, according to the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency, a state government agency.
“In fact, 72 percent of the state’s veterans are 55 or older, compared to only 37 percent of all state citizens,” the agency noted in its 2015 report.
In addition to the Great Lakes and Fort Custer cemeteries, the VA also manages the Fort Mackinac Post Cemetery on Mackinac Island and the Lakeside Cemetery Soldiers’ Lot in Port Huron. Both are closed to new burials.
Michigan also operates a veterans cemetery in Grand Rapids, but it is only open to residents of the nearby, state-operated Grand Rapids Home for Veterans and their spouses, said Brian Stedman, director of facilities. About 5,300 people are interred there, Stedman said.
According to Jason Wilkinson, strategic communications manager for the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency, state law says that if no one claims the remains of a veteran, a funeral director or medical examiner may have those remains interred at a national veterans cemetery. The law also provides for the same handling of the remains of a veteran’s spouse, Wilkinson said.
In all, the VA maintains 135 national cemeteries in 39 states and Puerto Rico, as well as 33 soldiers’ lots and monument sites.
The VA says burial in any national cemetery is open to all members of the armed forces who have met a “minimum active duty service requirement” and were discharged under conditions other than dishonorable.
A veteran’s spouse, minor dependent children and, under certain conditions, unmarried adult children with disabilities also may be eligible for burial, according to the VA.
Funeral honors are provided by the appropriate branch of service when requested by either the funeral director or next-of-kin, the VA says.
Military funeral honors include the presence of an “honors detail” to fold and present the U.S. flag to the next of kin and the playing of “Taps,” according to the VA.
Funeral home directors can request funeral honors from the Department of Defense, whether the burial is in a national cemetery or another cemetery, the VA says.
By CARL STODDARD