They’re not supposed to be there. Gregory. William. Philip. Joseph. It’s not that they died too young, or unfairly. We don’t know how these veterans died, only that they did, and that they deserve the respect and honor due to any of America’s men and women in uniform.
But dignity is not a word that comes to mind looking at their gravestones, which once graced Los Angeles National Cemetery. Now they lie broken and discarded among the remnants of the West LA VA’s forgotten biomedical nuclear and chemical dump.
Veterans’ tombstones are replaced when a spouse dies and is added to the grave, therefore added to the gravestone, or when the stones are cracked, unsightly or present a hazard. VA regulations are explicit that all veteran tombstones removed from national cemeteries, here and elsewhere, must be destroyed with the names no longer visible.
But, as exposed in the LA Weekly piece “Brentwood’s Toxic Grave” and EnviroReporter.com‘s “Atomic Tombstones,” at the West Los Angeles VA, regulations – like the soldiers’ gravestones – are tossed off with reckless impunity.
Critics contend that veterans’ needs are continually deep-sixed by the VA. “First of all, you have a picture of a veteran sleeping outside the gate of 399 acres of which they are doing filming,” says Jay Handal, chairman of the West Los Angeles Neighborhood Council and owner of the San Gennaro Café in Brentwood Village. “They would rather store trucks and buses and cars than house their homeless veterans. What’s wrong with that picture? What’s wrong with our government’s priorities?”
The West LA VA is the most valuable underdeveloped metropolitan federal land in country. It was deeded to the government in 1888 to be permanently maintained as a soldiers’ home. But even with unprecedented numbers of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and a December 2007 law designed to protect the land championed by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-California); the property is flagrantly exploited and neglected.
Families of veterans live in RVs on campus or along San Vicente Boulevard in Brentwood, while dozens of sub-contractors such as Fox, Marriott, Enterprise Rent-a-car, the Los Angeles Times, Kenwood Vineyards, Brietburn Energy, and Brentwood School profit from the land.
Veterans protest weekly over a new 16-acre public “Veterans’ Park” that will be built on $500 million worth of the property at the corner of the most congested intersections in the city, Wilshire and San Vicente boulevards. The park, critics say, is payoff to Brentwood’s well-connected for fighting the Bush administration’s controversial CARES plan to develop the VA property. That plan to commercially develop vast swaths of the VA, including where the dump area is, was defeated in September 2007, in part because of EnviroReporter.com’s revelations about the toxic waste site. It was at that time that the VA also committed to a $1 million Phase Two testing of the site as reiterated by West LA VA honcho Ralph Tillman on KCET’s “Life & Times” program December 19, 2007.
These atomic tombstones may have become a metaphor for what veterans and community activists alike assert about the people in charge of the West LA VA: Rules aren’t being followed and there isn’t enough respect and services given the veterans who are alive.