"The law that allows this disgrace must be changed. Arlington is for heroes."
Senator Barbara A. Mikulski testified this morning at a Senate Veteran Affairs Committee hearing held at her request to review the rules and regulations for burying convicted murderers in our national cemeteries. ?She also announced that she has introduced legislation to close the legislative loophole through which murders convicted in state, but not federal, court are eligible for military burial honors.
"Every day across this country, brave young soldiers are being honored and laid to rest in our national and veterans' cemeteries. We have precious little to offer in comfort for their grieving loved ones ... But we can insist that these sacred resting places and the honors our nation rightfully bestowed on those who have died in its service are preserved as sanctuaries and monuments to the values they died protecting," said Senator Mikulski. "Placing the remains of a cold-blooded murderer in this hallowed ground makes a mockery of that service. And it is wrong."
Senator Mikulski asked for the inquiry following the controversial placement of convicted killer Russell Wagner's remains in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors in July 2005. Also testifying today was Vernon Davis of Hagerstown, whose parents were killed by Wagner.
To hear and/or broadcast Senator Mikulski's testimony today, please call (800) 511-0763 and, when prompted, enter actuality number 4438.
Senator Mikulski's testimony, as prepared, can be found below:
"Thank you, Mr. Chairman and Senator Akaka for convening today(s hearing to help us preserve our national cemeteries as places of honor for our veterans. Arlington National Cemetery, and all our national cemeteries, is hallowed ground. They should not be tainted by the remains of convicted murderers. Today, I am introducing legislation to close the loop hole that allows convicted murders to be honored at national cemeteries.
"Mr. Chairman, in August, I brought to your attention a tragic and troubling circumstance regarding our national cemeteries. The remains of a convicted, cold-blooded murderer sentenced to two life sentences for his crimes were placed at Arlington National Cemetery on July 27, 2005.
"This man, Russell Wagner, was convicted of stabbing to death two elderly residents of Hagerstown, MD - Daniel Davis, 84 and his wife, Wilda Davis, 80. He was sentenced in state court to two life sentences for these unspeakable crimes. While serving his sentence in prison, Wagner died from a heroin overdose. Because he served honorably in Vietnam, his remains were allowed to be placed in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors, even though he committed this terrible crime.
"This episode has been terribly painful for the Davis family, understandably. They have had to relive the horror of their parents' brutal murder, while seeing the man who took away their loved ones being honored as a hero in our nation(s most sacred burial ground. There has been community outrage, which I share.
"The law that allows this disgrace must be changed. Arlington is for heroes. So many Marylanders who served with honor were laid to rest in Arlington. The heroes from every war, men like Navy Diver Michael Steadam, who was brutally murdered by terrorists simply because he was a member of our military. In the Iraqi conflict, 37 Marylanders have died including two from the same high school who died within weeks of each other. These are the heroes who deserve burial at our national cemeteries.
"The Committee will hear from the Veterans( Services Organizations. In my 18 years at the head of the VA-HUD subcommittee, I was proud to work closely with the veterans organizations. They are tireless advocates for America(s veterans. I so respect and admire them. I know many in these groups are uncomfortable with the idea of Congress tinkering with the benefits our veterans have earned. I can understand their yellow flashing lights.
"Promises made to our veterans must be promises kept. For 18 years, I fought every day to safeguard these benefits and continue to do so. Because they represent America(s payment of a debt we owe our brave veterans for their service - a debt that can never be fully repaid. But this is murder.
"Federal law already prohibits murderers from being honored at Arlington and our national cemeteries. In 1997, Congress passed a law to restrict burial eligibility to prevent convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh from being buried in a national cemetery following his execution. If someone is convicted of a capitol crime in a federal court, they cannot be placed at Arlington. Yet, if someone is tried for the same kind of crime in a state court, they can be buried in Arlington if they are eligible for parole. This loop hole enabled the man who murdered Mr. and Mrs. Davis to be placed alongside the heroes at Arlington.
"Why did Congress pass this law? Not to further punish the guilty, but to preserve our national cemeteries as places of honor for our veterans. So I was shocked to learn that the law we passed in 1997 doesn(t apply in the case of the man who murdered Daniel and Wilda Davis. He was convicted of two life sentences, but because he was convicted in state court, he remained eligible for interment with honors at Arlington National Cemetery. This doesn't make any sense.
"The purpose of the 1997 law was to protect the standards our military men and women live by - to protect the values they fight and die for. The cold-blooded murder of an elderly couple is certainly contrary to those values.
"I am here today on behalf of the Davis family. But I am also here on behalf of a nation at war. Every day across this country, brave young soldiers are being honored and laid to rest in our national and veterans' cemeteries. We have precious little to offer in comfort for their grieving loved ones who have made the ultimate sacrifice a nation can ask of a Mother or Father.
"But we can insist that these sacred resting places and the honors our nation rightfully bestowed on those who have died in its service are preserved as sanctuaries and monuments to the values they died protecting. Placing the remains of a cold-blooded murderer in this hallowed ground makes a mockery of that service. And it is wrong.
"Mr. Chairman, I appreciate you taking on this difficult issue. I thank you and the Committee for rethinking the circumstances under which convicted murderers are allowed to be buried in our national cemeteries. I look forward to your recommendations."