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Special Online companion piece to LA Weekly’s “Brentwood’s Toxic Grave” and EnviroReporter.com’s “Atomic Tombstones”

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?”

Los Angeles National Cemetery
Los Angeles National Cemetery

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.

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  1. My mother found the article about the Jenicke’s stealing the veteran’s headstones and using them for their patio. She was horrified and showed the article to me. I felt nauseated. She and my father were both World War II U.S. Marines. It hit me especially hard because she was so ill at the time she learned of this, and she died last September. I can say that I am proud to have had her for my mother, and I buried her in a veteran’s section by my dear U.S. Marine father from WWII. I am thinking of moving her and Dad out of the veterans section and taking the headstones and moving to a totally private place so such cold-hearted activity can not insult my parents. Something is REALLY perverted, hateful, COLD HEARTED, and bitter about people who do such things. They are to be pitied and avoided.

  2. As a veteran of WWII, I was disappointed to learn of the way in which these tombstones were treated. I wish to complement you on the excellent coverage of this story.

  3. I have no understanding of how people can be so cold and thoughtless.
    I can only hope those patio gravestones will be returned.
    Thank you, Michael, for bringing this to our attention

  4. How twisted things have become, that a young persons printed disgust over the disrespectful handling of Veteran grave stones elates Veteran advocates.
    Ironically, this WLA VA prides itself on its cemetary with new sod and its treatment for the dead Veterans. What the VA does not want to realize is the best way to honor a dead Veteran is to take care of the living Veteran. Living Veteran patients at the VA, WLA, facility are like living grave stones and leasing out the Veterans Garden to a non-Veteran, non-profit entity (as recent as a month ago) is the equivelent of discarding old grave stones for new sod.
    Feinstein, Waxman, Rosenthal and other electeds know about this “Land-grab” and stay silent ($$$$$$$$$).
    Thank you for caring enough to expose this.

  5. This is another great story by Michael Collins. What an insult to those soldiers to have their original markers thrown in a nuclear waste dump, of all things. Probably saved a little money. But to pave a patio and walk on them–some heads should roll on this.

  6. The VA needs to be monitered. This is just one example of the mismanagement of our tax money.

    OK, the granite marker for a grave is going to be replaced for whatever reason. However, that slab is 2 to 3 inches thick and I would think the surface could be re ground down the letterings 1/4 inch depth to erase the information and than re-used. It is called “re-cycling”.

    Thank you for the reporting on this.

  7. It’s sad to see graveyards that are not taken care of. I don’t understand why the gravestones were dumped.

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