HONOLULU (AP) - The National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl has burial sites available, information that dismayed veterans organizations say was never shared with them.
For more than two decades, word was that the cemetery was at capacity for in-ground burials. But there are actually 99 available in-ground gravesites, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported Monday.
The graves have become available through ongoing disinterment and identification of Korean War "unknowns."
William Thompson, president of the 442nd Veterans Club, said in a Dec. 31 letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki that veterans are puzzled and disturbed that the gravesites were not made known to them.
"I am certain that the families of recent veterans of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team who have died would have chosen one of these open casketed gravesites had they known of this," Thompson said in the letter.
Thompson said it seems that such information has been deliberately withheld from veterans organizations by the VA and that former cemetery director Gene Castagnetti was prevented from disseminating news of the availability of the graves.
Castagnetti, who retired Sept. 30, declined to comment.
Brad Phillips, West Coast director of the VA's National Cemetery Administration, said Oahu funeral homes were notified about the grave openings. He said that was more than was done in the past.
"Our thought was that broader communication in the (veterans) community would have led to a misperception that the cemetery was open to all burials - which wasn't in fact the case," Phillips said.
Of the graves available, 63 would accommodate a full casket burial and the remaining 36 represent smaller plots for cremated remains, according to Phillips.
He said the VA is reviewing the issue and working with Hawaii's congressional delegation on perhaps expanding its outreach.
U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said her office has urged the National Cemetery Administration to advertise the availability of sites more broadly.
"Punchbowl serves as a memorial to honor those men and women who serve in the United States Armed Forces, and those who have given their lives in doing so," she said in a statement. "If more gravesites are made available, people should be aware."