Veterans Affairs officials are rejecting calls to remove gravestones bearing Nazi swastikas at a pair of federal veterans cemeteries, saying they have a duty to preserve the historic markers.
But officials from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation called the continued presence of the offensive symbols alongside the resting place of American veterans “shocking and inexcusable” and are demanding a public apology from VA leaders.
“Secretary Robert Wilkie must immediately replace the gravestones of all German military personnel interred in VA national cemeteries so that abosultely no Nazi-era symbols … will ever again be allowed to appear on such gravestones,” said Mikey Weinstein, chair of MRFF.
At issue are three grave sites at two VA cemeteries: Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in Texas and Fort Douglas Post Cemetery in Utah. Both were used to inter dozens of unclaimed remains of enemy troops following World War II.
While most of the foreign troops’ grave markers list only names and dates of death, the three in question are also engraved with with a swastika in the center of an iron cross and in inscription in German which reads “He died far from his home for the Führer, people and fatherland.”
Veteran Affairs officials in a statement said the headstones date back to the 1940s. Army officials oversaw both cemeteries at the time and approved the inscriptions and inclusion of the swastika.
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“The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 assigns stewardship responsibilities to federal agencies, including VA and Army, to protect historic resources, including those that recognize divisive historical figures or events,” National Cemetery Administration spokesman Les’ Melnyk said in response to questions about the graves.
“For this reason, VA will continue to preserve these headstones, like every past administration has.”
Some veterans call that stance offensive.
One retired senior officer who occasionally visits the grave of his Jewish grandfather at the Fort Sam Houston site said he only recently discovered the offensive grave markers, and was appalled that anyone would approve the use of the swastika on VA grounds.
“This is the hallowed ground of people who gave their life for this country,” said the man, who asked his name be withheld due to fear of reprisal from extremist groups that still use the swastika today. “To be buried next to people they fought displaying that symbol of hate is disgusting.”
Weinstein said VA’s policy on the historic nature of the headstones needs to be re-examined in light of the rise of extremist groups in recent years, which could make the sites a kind of rally point for anti-Semetic groups. He said his group is looking into legal action to force their removal.
“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 say,’” he said. “The VA’s pathetic and feckless response here is disingenuous at best and dishonest at worst.”
“We regret the use of the photograph of Joachim Peiper. The intent was to tell the full story of the Battle of the Bulge, which will continue here, by explaining the incredible odds that were stacked up against the American Soldier by the time the reserve was called in on 18 Dec,” the Army airborne unit tweeted Tuesday morning.
The Department of Veterans Affairs took over the Fort Sam Houston site in 1973 and the Fort Douglas site in 2019.
Officials did not respond to questions regarding whether the swastika symbol has prompted similar comments in the past, or if leadership has discussed adding any new signage to explain why the gravestones were approved at the cemeteries.
Military and VA officials in the past have fought expansion of religious symbols for use on headstones at official ceremonies, including years-long litigation in the early 2000s to block Wiccan followers from displaying the pentagram on federal property. Those restrictions have been loosened some in ensuing years.
About Leo Shane III
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.