14:29 GMT23 September 2020
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    The controversy surrounds three grave sites at two cemeteries under the VA’s jurisdiction, the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in Texas and Fort Douglas Post Cemetery in Utah, used to bury numerous unclaimed remains of enemy combatants and prisoners-of-war at the conclusion of World War II.

    A bipartisan group of US Senators from the House Committee on Appropriations and its Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veteran Affairs wrote a letter to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) 25th May, Memorial Day, demanding gravestones bearing swastikas and praise for Adolf Hitler be removed from federal cemeteries. In all, three grave stones display a swastika in the center of an iron cross along with a German inscription - “he died far from the Fuhrer, people and fatherland” the English translation. 

    “We are deeply troubled to learn Department of Veterans Affairs Cemeteries in Texas and Utah contain graves of German prisoners of war with swastika-adorned headstones and messages honoring Hitler. Allowing these gravestones with symbols and messages of hatred, racism, intolerance, and genocide is especially offensive to all the veterans who risked, and often lost, their lives defending this country and our way of life,” the lawmakers said.

    The letter was signed by Democrats Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Nita Lowey of New York, and Texas Republicans John Carter and Kay Granger, and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), an activist group advocating for absolute separation of religion from military activities, calling for the gravestones to be removed earlier this month. MRFF also demanded the VA apologize for allowing the markers to remain so long.

    “Secretary Robert Wilkie must immediately replace the gravestones of all German military personnel interred in VA national cemeteries so absolutely no Nazi-era symbols…will ever again be allowed to appear on such gravestones. VA only adds more despicable fuel to the spreading conflagration of anti-Jewish bigotry and prejudice by saying to the world that ‘the Nazi grave markers have been there for a long time so they get to stay’. The VA’s pathetic and feckless response here is disingenuous at best and dishonest at worst, said Mikey Weinstein, chair of MRFF.

    ​The VA claim the gravestones date to the 1940s, before the department controlled the cemeteries - US Army officials were in charge then, and for reasons unclear allowed the swastika and mentions of Hitler on the gravestones - but have justified their resistance to remove the controversial markers on the basis doing so would violate the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which requires the federal government to protect historical resources “for the inspiration and benefit of present and future generations”.

    However, the lawmakers dismissed this argument, stating that “honoring Hitler on the headstones of German soldiers who took up arms against the US United States is not in line with the law’s intent” - they moreover said VA’s refusal to replace the “offensive” headstones comes at a time documented antisemitic incidents in the United States have reached a new high, and was “particularly troubling” as a result.

    “VA’s decision to leave the swastikas and messages honoring Hitler in place and ignore the calls to take them down is callous, irresponsible and unacceptable.  VA has a responsibility to our service members and veterans to treat their burials and final resting places with the utmost respect. VA has acknowledged this responsibility in its own policy on headstone markers, saying 'VA will not inscribe any emblem on a headstone or marker that would have an adverse impact on the dignity and solemnity of cemeteries honoring those who served the Nation'. There is no question the swastikas and inscriptions on these specific headstones have an adverse impact in honoring those who served” the letter concludes.

    It’s not the first time a gravestone has caused controversy in the US. In 2013, a cemetery in Cincinnati, Ohio removed a SpongeBob SquarePants headstone from the grave of military veteran Kimberley Walker, who served two tours in Iraq in 2006 and 2010 as a petroleum supply specialist, was selected by her family due to her love of the cartoon character. Walker was beaten and strangled to death by her boyfriend, Sergeant Montrell Lamar Anderson Mayo on Valentine’s Day that year, in a Colorado Springs, Colorado hotel room. He was subsequently convicted of first-degree murder by a military jury and sentenced to life without parole.

    The cemetery initially approved the headstone, then decided it wasn’t appropriate, claiming the employee who approved the headstones made an inexplicable error in judgment - it was removed the day after it was erected.

    ​The $26,000 monument, consisting of two SpongeBob tombstones, is six feet tall and four feet wide and stands astride a platform of eight inches. Each SpongeBob dons a military uniform, one in an Army uniform for Kimberly and the other in a Navy uniform for her twin sister Kara. Kimberley’s monument also had an American flag on one sleeve and the No. 24, a reference to her favorite Nascar driver Jeff Gordon, on the other.

    “I thought it was the greatest thing in the cemetery. I even told the people there that I think this is the best monument I’ve ever seen. It’s the best headstone in the cemetery and they all agreed. It came out really nice,” Kara said at the time.

    The cemetery initially offered the Walker family a compromise, including a more traditional gravestone bearing a passing likeness to SpongeBob SquarePants. However, four months later, the monument was reinstated - albeit with granite slabs erected to shield the headstones from passersby - and a grovelling apology issued.

    “Spring Grove Cemetery apologizes to the Walker family. Our personnel oversaw the design and installed the SpongeBob monuments and then had them removed when concerns were raised by others. We deeply regret the distress this caused the family. We have worked hard to remedy the problem and appreciate the cooperation we received from the family during this process,” they said.









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