VA secretary stops short of agreeing to remove Nazi headstones

VA secretary stops short of agreeing to remove Nazi headstones
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Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert WilkieRobert Leon WilkieOvernight Defense: DOD reportedly eyeing Confederate flag ban | House military spending bill blocks wall funding Wilkie: Union exploiting COVID-19 crisis for contract gains Fauci hints at new approach to COVID-19 testing MORE on Thursday stopped short of committing to remove headstones in VA cemeteries engraved with swastikas and tributes to Adolf Hitler, citing the need for historical preservation.

"I have asked my people to look at various ways to address this. I happen to think that making sure that when people visit our cemeteries they are educated and informed of the horror is an incredibly important thing to do," Wilkie said at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Monday.

"The last thing we need to do is not remind Americans of the horrors of anti-Semitism and the horrors of the Nazi cult," he added.

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In question are three gravestones for the remains of unclaimed German prisoners of war buried at VA cemeteries that feature Nazi insignia.

Two of the graves, at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas, include an iron cross and swastika on the headstone and an engraving referencing Adolf Hitler that reads, “He died far from his home for the Führer, people and fatherland.” 
 
A third grave, in Salt Lake City's Fort Douglas Post Cemetery, features a swastika and a Knight’s Cross with oak leaves. 
 
Both were Army cemeteries before coming under the stewardship of the VA.

Lawmakers, including the top Democrats and Republicans on both the House Appropriations Committee and its Veterans Affairs subcommittee, sent a letter earlier in the week urging the headstones' removal and replacement.

"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 letter said.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman SchultzDeborah (Debbie) Wasserman SchultzHouse panel advances bill banning construction on bases with Confederate names The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Rep. Rodney Davis says most important thing White House can do on COVID-19 is give consistent messaging; US new cases surpass 50k for first time VA initiates process to remove headstones with Nazi symbols MORE (D-Fla.) pressed Wilkie on the issue.

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"I would argue that swastikas, as well as the inscriptions that these gravestones feature honoring Hitler, absolutely have an adverse impact in honoring those who served. We do not erase history by replacing these headstones for modern times with more appropriate inscriptions," she said.

Wasserman Schultz said that the interpretation of a 1966 historical preservation law did not apply to the gravestones in question. The law, she said, allows for banning emblems "that would have an adverse impact on the dignity and solemnity of those serving the nation."

"You have soldiers who fought and died, who were killed by the Nazis whom they are lying next to, and whose loved ones need to walk past inscriptions at American Veteran cemeteries that honor Hitler and have a Nazi swastika," she said.

"There are certainly ways that you can put the gravestones in an appropriate historical context that don't lie above the graves of these dead," she added.

Wilkie opened his remarks on the issue by expressing his passion for fighting anti-Semitism, noting the year his son spent working for the Holocaust Museum in high school, speeches he'd given in Israel and his choice of making his first speech as VA secretary to a Jewish veterans group.

But he did not agree to Wasserman Schultz's request to kick of a consultation process under the historic preservation law that could lead to the headstone's removal.

"What I am just saying is that as someone who cares deeply about this, and you know I do, I do want to do it in a way that still reminds Americans of the horror, and because of the time in which we live in which we have seen anti-Semitism reach our shores, I want to make sure that VA is doing the best that we can to educate and remind people why those veterans in that cemetery fought against that horror from 1941 to 1945," he said.

He did, however, agree that there was promise in Wasserman Schultz's suggestion to replace the headstones but display them with historical context in the cemeteries.

"That may be the answer," he said.