VA audit finds upkeep at Hilo’s veterans cemeteries lacking, seeks review of all in state

  • In this Tribune-Herald file photo, Robert Nesbitt power washes a headstone May 13 with members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3875 at Hawaii Veterans Cemetery in Hilo.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Some rows of headstones are askew Monday at Hawaii Veterans Cemetery in Hilo.

An audit released Thursday by the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General found what it called “critical deficiencies” at veterans cemeteries in Hilo and Makawao, Maui.

The audit report on nine sample cemeteries receiving “significant” federal funding through the Veterans Cemetery Grants Program in fiscal years 2017 and/or 2018 found deficiencies in eight of those cemeteries, some of them decades old.

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In the Hawaii cemeteries, those include “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.

Cemeteries receiving those grants are required to ensure those cemeteries are maintained in accordance with National Cemetery Association standards.

The report called for the NCA to work with the state Office of Veterans’ Services “to conduct an extensive assessment of all eight Hawaii state veterans cemeteries, including oversight and operations, staffing needs (including training), grave site marker accuracy, and grounds conditions.”

Although the Office of Veterans’ Services is responsible for oversight of the state veterans cemeteries, upkeep of all but the State Veterans Cemetery in Kaneohe, Oahu, has been left to county governments. In Hawaii County, Hilo’s two veterans cemeteries and West Hawaii Veterans Cemetery are maintained by the county Department of Parks and Recreation.

“We appreciate the report, and we look forward to reviewing the report more closely with our team and making sure our veterans cemeteries on the island are up to par,” Maurice Messina, Parks and Recreation director and a Navy veteran, said Monday. “As a veteran myself, I take our veterans cemeteries seriously, and I know that our maintenance workers have a caring heart, as well. When I came in as director in December, one of my first meetings was with our maintenance folks that take care of our 13 cemeteries on island, and paying special consideration to our three veterans cemeteries.”

A 2016 compliance review at the Hilo veterans cemeteries found that the 75 flat grave markers chosen in its random sample “were not properly installed and were merely placed on the ground over the gravesite.”

“Flat markers could be easily moved and placed over the wrong gravesite,” the report said. It added the parks maintenance superintendent told investigators the county lacked staffing to properly install the markers, “because it does not receive money from the state to run the cemetery.”

Messina said Monday the county still doesn’t receive state funding “for day-to-day maintenance of our veterans cemeteries.”

The audit team also found 42 gravesites outside the sample sites which didn’t meet the NCA requirement that graves bear permanent markers within 60 days of burial. That includes the grave of a veteran’s spouse that has borne a temporary marker for 19 years, plus grave sites that have been unmarked between two and 19 years.

The February 2020 review of 75 sample graves didn’t find any gravesite discrepancies, but concluded Hilo’s cemeteries “still lacked a graveside layout plan and had no maps for visitors.” It also found lack of a tagging process for caskets and urns to ensure the decedent is buried in the correct grave, a problem identified in 2016.

In addition, standards that open graves be “protected by appropriate devices while unattended” weren’t adhered to.

The audit found the cemeteries “merely cover open graves with a piece of plywood” and are “not sufficiently secured from the public and other cemetery employees,” increasing liability risks.

The Hilo cemeteries were found “provisionally compliant” in 2016, which means, according to grant terms and conditions, an action plan to address discrepancies was supposed to be submitted to NCA — which didn’t occur, according to Thursday’s report.

The audit also found the Veterans Cemetery Grant Program awarded the Hilo cemeteries grants of $563,000 and $294,000 in 2016, plus $870,278 in 2017, even though no action plan for improvement was submitted. It also showed that that NCA “did not sufficiently follow up,” providing documentation of actions only from October 2019 to February 2021.

The report didn’t uncover misuse of grant money, but found the NCA “did not ensure cemeteries with grants met all NCA national shrine standards for installation of permanent markers, maintenance, and safety.”

“I need to review the standards with the new administration that we have, and also, I’ve spoken with Mr. (Roland) Han numerous times,” Messina said, referring to the Office of Veterans’ Services director. “And I know he’s there to assist us, and this report will help us get better. And we will look at our maintenance staffing, to make sure that it’s adequate to keep up with the standards.”

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The Tribune-Herald also reached out Monday to the Office of Veterans’ Services, but didn’t receive a reply in time for this story.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.