San Diego’s Historic Places: Miramar National Cemetery
By Donald H. Harrison
SAN DIEGO—Miramar National Cemetery was dedicated Saturday, January 30, 2010, by two members of Congress and ranking officials of the military and Veterans Administration with promises that San Diego will once again be able to bury the bodies of its veterans—and not only their ashes—before the end of the year.
Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery which has served San Diego since the mid 19th century ran out of room in 1966 for gravesites, although inurnments in the columbarium continue to this day. That has meant that any San Diego veteran or spouse desiring to be buried in a casket, and not cremated, had to go to another national cemetery with the closest one being in Riverside, California.
This has worked a hardship on all veteran families in San Diego, who had to choose between a gravesite somewhere else or an urn here in San Diego. In particular, this caused a hardship for Jewish veteran families desiring to observe the religion’s traditional prohibition against cremation.
Alan Miliefsky, California commander of Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A., said another feature of the cemetery – pre-location in the gravesites of crypts—will make it easier for military burials to be accomplished within the quick time frame of 24 to 48 hours that is typical of a Jewish funeral. Having the cemetery on Miramar Marine Corps Air Station also will mean that buglers from the Marine Corps Band such as the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing Band, which played at the dedication ceremonies, will be available to sound the customary “Taps” at military burials.
U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, chairman of the Veteran Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives, said that the plans for the cemetery include “a combination of natural and man-made designs” using California native plants in such a way that the cemetery will be considered “a garden of heroes.”
The congressman paid special tribute to Retired Air Force Brigadier General Robert Cardenas, board chairman of the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery Support Foundation, who helped organize a 10-year-drive to build a new national cemetery in San Diego County. Joking that the general was “a general pain in the butt,” he said that Washington would never have responded as it did without his prodding.
The congressman also surprised many in the audience by thanking a disgraced former colleague, Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who now is serving a term in federal prison following conviction in a bribery trial. Filner and Cunningham—respectively a liberal Democrat and a Conservative Republican—had many clashes, sometimes even bitter ones, but Filner said it was important to remember that Cunningham, who previously had been an ace pilot in the Vietnam War, had initiated the effort to have a new national cemetery built in San Diego. Acknowledging that Cunningham made mistakes for which he is serving the sentence, Filner added that Cunningham also did some good, especially for veterans. Filner’s impromptu comments, though controversial, were received with applause.
Congresswoman Susan Davis, a Democrat who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, commented that with the construction of Miramar National Cemetery, San Diego, with one of the highest veteran populations in the country, will again have a choice “when it comes to their funeral arrangements.”
The two Congressional representatives preceded to the podium Kirk K. Leopard, whose job as director of the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery will be expanded to include the directorship of both cemeteries.
Leopard said the 313-acre cemetery on the west tip of Miramar Marine Corps Air Station near the Nobel Drive exit of Interstate 805 will be built in phases, with the first phase to include approximately 11,500 conventional gravesites, 4,500 in-ground cremation sites, and 10,000 colambarium niches. Eventually, he added in an interview, there will be combined space for 162,000 caskets and urns, which he estimated will be filled within seven decades.
Fort Rosecrans just this last December recorded its 100,000th funeral. One of the reasons that Miramar will be able to accommodate more burials than Fort Rosecrans, said Leopard, is that the ground will be dug 10 feet deep, instead of five feet deep, and each site will be able to accommodate two caskets.
Although the first phase of cemetery construction is not expected to be completed until 2012, a portion of the first phase is planned to be ready by September of this year, when the first burials will occur, according to Leopard.
Part of the reason it took a decade for the cemetery to reach this point was the presence of two endangered species on Miramar Marine Corps Air Station — the California gnatcatcher and the fairy shrimp. Land was set aside for both the gnatcatcher, a bird known for its catlike mewing call, and the shrimp which breeds during the rainy season in vernal pools, remaining dormant the rest of the year.
The keynote speaker of Saturday’s ceremony was Steve L. Muro, acting undersecretary for memorial affairs. He said that Miramar will have a memorial wall constructed to honor soldiers who were lost at sea, missing in action, and are prisoners of war, so that their families will have a place to symbolically visit them. He paid tribute to Gold Star Mothers and Gold Star Wives, who received a standing ovation from fellow members of the audience, and also remembered John Ibe, a strong local advocate, now deceased, for the Miramar National Cemetery.
One of the names most mentioned during the ceremony was that of Abraham Lincoln, whose famous Gettysburg Address in 1863 dedicated one of what today is a 131-unit system of national cemeteries. It was Lincoln who ordered cemeteries to be set aside to honor those who would give their lives defending their country. In his Gettysburg Address, the 16th President also predicted that the world would little remember what was said that day – but in that he was mistaken.
Among other speakers was Anthony Principi, who had served as Secretary of Veterans Affairs during President George W. Bush’s administration and who, Muro noted, was one of the top administration officials who had pushed for locating a cemetery at Miramar.
A former U.S. Navy officer, Principi, a resident or Rancho Santa Fe, said he anticipated that he might someday be buried in this cemetery himself – a sentiment also expressed by another speaker, Maj. Gen. Anthony L. Jackson, who is commanding general for the Marine Corps installations in the Western United States.
In the ceremony emceed by KGTV/ Channel 10’s Bob Lawrence, there were numerous other dignitaries who did not speak, but who were recognized, including San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, and two Medal of Honor recipients: Jay Vargas, who fought in Vietnam, and Walt Ehlers, who was decorated for his bravery on D-Day during World War II.
The dedication ceremony began with a musical prelude by the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing Band under the direction of Staff Sgt Victor Ney, and ended with Marines rendering a three-volley rifle salute and the playing of “Taps” by Sgt. Austin Hunt, bugler. In between there was a presentation of the colors by an honor guard from Marine Corps Air Station Miramar; the playing of the Star Spangled Banner followed by a medley of the songs of the various branches of the Armed Services; a prayer of dedication by Chaplain Ronald Ritter, a symbolic groundbreaking ceremony in which the dignitaries donned hard hats and wielded shovels; and the unveiling of a plaque by Jackson, Principi and Muro. The plaque said:
“Miramar National Cemetery Dedicated to the Memory of All the Patriotic Men and Women Who Answered Their Country’s Call to Service.” Below that inscription were the names of Barack Obama, President of the United States; Eric K. Shinseki, Secretary, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and Steve L. Muro, Acting Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs, National Cemetery Administration. The plaque carried the Dedication date of January 30, 2010.
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World