Valley veteran calls changes to plaques at national cemetery a disgrace


An Arizona veteran believes other veterans, service members and their families deserve more than what they’re getting at the National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona in Phoenix.

Above-ground tombs at the cemetery near Cave Creek and Pinnacle Peak roads hold the ashes of those who served, and even died, for the U.S. – along with those of their spouses.

Retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. James Larsen, who served in World War II and the Korean War, doesn’t like how the individual name plaques, or niche covers, are beginning to look.

“I come here because I love my wife,” Larsen said. “I still love her. And, I talk to her when I come up here.”

About twice a month the 87-year-old Mesa resident visits Nancy, his wife of nearly 62 years, at the cemetery where her ashes have been held since she died in June of 2011.

“I’m looking around and I may even end up taking her out of here,” Larsen said.

The cemetery’s director told CBS 5 News that in 2009 the Veterans Affairs Undersecretary for Memorial Affairs started using deep-cut engraving on the niche covers instead of painted inscriptions – in order to prevent paint erosion.

As the older, painted niche covers fade, Jerry Rainey said they’re being replaced with unpainted, deep-cut engraved versions.

“If you take the cost of the initial painting, you take the cost of maintaining that and redoing it – then, yes, it is a considerable cost-saving measure,” Rainey said.

But, Larsen argues you can’t put a price on the quality of the final resting place service members and veterans deserve.

“I agree it costs a lot of money,” he said. “But, these veterans in these graves – they’ve paid for that.”

Rainey said not only was the move cost-cutting, it ensures a uniform appearance at all national cemeteries.

Larsen said he doesn’t get the logic.

He points out, unpainted niche covers are very difficult to read.

“You have to remember a lot of the people who come up here are old people,” said Larsen. “Their husbands are old. Their wives are old and they have trouble.”

Larsen is reaching out to just about everyone about his concerns.

He even gave Rainey the idea of using a type of paint used on airplanes and spaceships,  instead of the now-abandoned lithichrome stone paint on the niche covers.

Rainey said he passed that suggestion on to his superiors in Washington, DC, about two weeks ago.

Larsen also wrote a letter to First Lady Michelle Obama, telling her a plain white, marble wall is no way to honor those who’ve served.

“This is a veteran’s cemetery,” Larsen said. “We have unknown cemeteries in Arlington, VA. We don’t need one in niches here in Phoenix, AZ.”

Larsen said he’s going to keep on fighting to get those niche covers painted.

Larsen urges anyone with feelings similar to his to contact the VA.

Copyright 2014 CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.