By BEN HARRIS
NEW YORK CITY (JTA) – The Department of Veterans Affairs announced that it will begin the process of replacing three gravestones bearing swastikas in cemeteries in Texas and Utah, less than a month after saying they would be preserved as “historic resources.”
The VA told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in May that it would preserve the gravestones, which mark the burial sites of three German prisoners of war. That comment came in response to a call by a group called the Military Religious Freedom Foundation to have them replaced.
But in a statement Monday, June 1 the VA reversed course.
While noting that it was not legally permitted to unilaterally remove or alter the headstones under the National Historic Preservation Act, the department said it would nonetheless “begin taking required steps including consultation with stakeholders about how to replace these headstones with historically accurate markers that do not include the Nazi swastika and German text.”
“It is understandably upsetting to our veterans and their families to see Nazi inscriptions near those who gave their lives for this nation,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said. “That’s why VA will initiate the process required to replace these POW headstones.”
The headstones in question are located at the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas, and the Fort Douglas Post Cemetery in Salt Lake City, Utah. The VA said that it will propose that the headstones be preserved in its National Cemetery Administration History Collection.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Florida), the chairwoman of the House Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations subcommittee, welcomed the move.
“The families of soldiers who fought against intolerance and hatred must never be forced to confront glorification of those very ideologies when visiting their loved ones,” she said in a statement. “VA’s initial decision to leave the gravestones in place was callous and irresponsible, but today’s decision is an honorable move in the right direction.”