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Cotton Testifies Before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee About the Charles Duncan Buried with Honor Act

June 29, 2016

Thank you, Mr. Chair. I would like to thank the Ranking Member, Senator Blumenthal. And I would like the thank Senator Murray and Senator Hirono for the chance to appear before you today.

I'm here today to discuss my legislation, the Charles Duncan Buried with Honor Act, which would expand the cemetery burial options offered by the VA to financially insolvent veterans. 

I want to begin by telling you the story about the bill's namesake, Mr. Charles Duncan, a Navy veteran from Little Rock, Arkansas. Mr. Duncan died last year at the age of 66. He was financially insolvent and his family couldn't afford his funeral costs. Thanks to the past efforts of this committee in passing the Dignified Burial and other Veterans' Benefits Improvement Act of 2012, Mr. Duncan was eligible for VA assistance with his burial costs.

Unfortunately, because of a small gap in the law, Mr. Duncan and other veterans like him can only receive this assistance if they're buried in a national cemetery. In Arkansas, as I suspect in other states, this rule can necessitate hours of travel to reach the closest cemetery. For instance, we have three national cemeteries: one in Little Rock, one in Fort Smith and one in Fayetteville. But the national cemetery in Little Rock is full, leaving Fort Smith and Fayetteville in the west as the only options. In Mr. Duncan's case, his adult daughter has no means of transportation and was unable to make the drive to Fort Smith from Little Rock and missed her father's funeral. Since then, she's been unable to visit her father's grave.

Wouldn't it make more sense to allow these veterans the option of a state veterans cemetery if that cemetery is closer to the veteran's home? In Arkansas, we have two state cemeteries, one in Little Rock and one in east Arkansas in Birdeye. Both have plenty of room for more veterans. And as you can see, a large part of my state is much closer to Little Rock and Birdeye than it is to Fort Smith or Fayetteville. 

Mr. Duncan could have been laid to rest in the Little Rock state cemetery, saving taxpayer money and allowing friends and family to attend the service or visit the gravesite. 

This is a small, but important change. Since Senator Murray's bill took effect, the VA has reimbursed claims totaling almost $240,000 for the interment of 203 veterans. The costs associated with my legislation are estimated at only $2 million over 10 years. I would suggest this cost is minimal when you consider the sacrifices our veterans made and the solace this could provide their loved ones. Additionally, this change would not add additional stress to the VA or distract from their other efforts. It is a simple, straight-forward change that the VA's Veterans Cemetery Grants Program is well-equipped to handle. And I would note that the VA submitted a no-benefit-cost-or-savings legislative proposal to make this type of change in its FY17 Budget Submission, indicating its willingness to implement this legislation. 

Finally, in the interest of moving this bill forward, it retains the no-next-of kin provision in current law, which maintains the VA's commitment to its homeless veterans initiative. This provision holds down costs, but it also requires indigent veterans to disavow loved ones to be eligible for burial benefits. I hope there's a way to resolve that matter at a later date and I look forward to working with the committee and the VA on it.

Charles Duncan wasn't the first veteran in this position, but we can help ensure he is one of the last. 

Thank you for your time. Thank you for your continued support for our veterans.