In 2022, nearly 150,000 eligible veterans and family members were interred in national cemeteries, but the head of the National Cemetery Administration says the number of military vets taking advantage of free plots, headstones and other death-related benefits should be much higher.
Awarded the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, Marine Cpl. Claudio Patino IV served his nation in the U.S. Marine Corps and died at the age of 22 in Afghanistan. Now, it's Patino's turn to be served.
"He was a young, young kid," Oliver Villalobos, assistant director at Riverside National Cemetery said. "It could have been me. He'll always be part of my life here at the cemetery."
Villalobos visits Patino's gravesite in Riverside, California often. Sometimes he meets Patino's mother there, where he first met her on the day of her son's burial.
"During the course of the burial, I ended up talking to her and I said, 'Oh, don't worry,' I told her in Spanish. I said, 'Don't worry, ma'am. I'm going to take care of your son. You know, he's in my hands, and I'm going to make sure that he gets everything he deserves and he gets treated with honor,'" Villalobos said. "After this experience is when I decided that I was going to be a cemetery caretaker for the rest of my career."
It was the first killed in action grave he dug, but it wasn't his last. Now the assistant director, he's there for veterans' families on one of their worst days.
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"This is my baby. I started here, I'm going to probably end up being buried here," Villalobos said. "If the job is good enough for your mother, or your brother or your uncle, then it's good enough for the veteran. And if it's not, go back and do it again. Because that's the kind of level of service that we expect, that we demand that we give to our veterans, because we're all family here together."
"It can be difficult sometimes, to see someone lose a loved one, and we never forget the loved ones I lost," said Edd Holmes, who digs graves at Riverside National Cemetery. "I lost my mother. So when I see somebody lose their mother, you know, it's something I can relate to, and it still hurts. So when they're in pain, we're in pain. You know, we feel the same way."
Some 60 miles east of Los Angeles, Riverside is the National Cemetery Administration's largest and busiest cemetery. It's the final resting place for five Medal of Honor recipients, 10 Tuskegee Airmen and more than 300,000 other veterans and their family members. But the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is trying to make more vets aware and familiar with the benefits available to them and their families well after they're gone.
The National Cemetery Administration says nearly 94% of veterans have access to a no-cost national or grant funded cemetery within 75 miles of their homes. Yet, in 2022, only about 22% of eligible veterans or their family members were buried in a national or VA funded cemetery. It's something VA Under Secretary Matt Quinn wants to change.
"About half of all Veterans are eligible for VA health care. About a third of all veterans actively use VA health care. 85% of eligible Veterans use their GI Bill benefits, either themselves, or by transferring those benefits to a family member. But only 15% of all Veterans who die each year are interred in a VA national cemetery. Another 5% are interred in a VA-funded state, territorial or tribal cemetery," Quinn said in a media roundtable earlier this year. "Now, I know that the choice of where to bury a loved one is a deeply personal one every family has to make. Many families have long traditions of using a particular plot, and I want those families to know that they can honor the service of their Veteran with a VA-provided headstone, marker, or medallion."
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Quinn says they're working on outreach to veterans, their families and also funeral homes to further educate people on what's available and dispel misconceptions.
In Riverside, Villalobos started his own outreach effort to raise awareness locally with what he calls a VA burial benefit passport, which resembles a credit card.
"78,000 veterans are served by Loma Linda Healthcare, the VA Medical Center, so why not reach them ... with these new cards, the VA burial benefit passports," Villalobos explained. "On the back, they hold all the QR codes to all the documents necessary to find eligibility, your headstone, what national cemetery you want to be buried in? It's all here in this card."
On a sunny spring day in Riverside, Villalobos oversaw the special interment of Lawrence Molina, an unhoused veteran who was once a member of an underwater demolition team and later the Navy SEALs.
"It's a tough story. A lot of vets, you know, go through it. A lot of us here have PTSD," Villalobos said.
Molina, who had served for more than 20 years, was seemingly forgotten until the Unidentified Veteran Program matched his remains through the FBI database and called Riverside.
"They didn't know what kind of a man he was just sitting there in a corner somewhere on the street," Villalobos said. "But, you know, we got the chance to pay honors to him. And we did, so you know, we did our job."
"There's literally tens of thousands of stories out here: Tuskegee Airmen, Navajo code talkers, people like Cpl. Patino, you know, killed in actions that gave their life for this country," Villalobos said. "Now if they came out here and found these stories, I think it would be moving for everybody."
There are 155 VA national cemeteries and another 121 funded by the VA. No matter where a veteran lives, they can choose to be buried at almost any open VA cemetery in the continental U.S. For more information, including how to apply before death, visit www.cem.va.gov.
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