The deputy director of the Texas State Veterans Cemeteries is resigning after the Texas General Land Office’s chief investment officer called the veteran cemeteries “money losing programs.”
Eric Brown, a retired Air Force master sergeant, has been running the state’s four veteran cemeteries since 2013. He announced his resignation Nov. 10, and his last day in office is Tuesday.
The statement by CIO Rusty Martin, who is not a veteran, was the final show of disrespect in what has been an ongoing struggle for funding from the Texas GLO’s finance office, Brown said.
The statement was made near the end of an Oct. 28 meeting about the status and funding of the cemeteries between the state cemeteries board, Texas Veterans Commission, the Veterans Land Board and the GLO.
“Remember, when you talk about supporting these cemeteries, you’re talking about forever,” Martin said at the Oct. 28 meeting. “You can’t predict what the land and housing (loan) programs will look like 10 years from now, let alone 200 years from now. If loan demand goes down precipitously over time, then you really don’t have that generating any income for the program, at some point you’ll siphon out all the funds available for the program.
“I’m a money guy. I’m not comfortable putting any kind of money into a money losing program.”
That last comment by Wilson during the open meeting in Austin last month really rattled Brown.
Brown said the veteran cemeteries were never meant to be a money-making venture, but a show of final respect for the men and women who gave so much in service to their nation. The primary funding for the cemeteries comes from profits made from the veteran home, home improvement and land loan programs and the state’s veteran retirement homes — all programs run by the Texas Veterans Land Board, which falls under the GLO. There is no funding provided to the veteran cemeteries by the Texas Legislature, Brown said. The funding to establish, expand and improve the cemeteries has been provided through grants by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I’m a veteran myself. It was just despicable to sit up there and hear that,” Brown said. “That was just the tip of the iceberg — it’s been some time that they’ve had this thought that the cemeteries don’t make money, so they’re not worth anything.”
Martin’s comments were enough to bring an immediate rebuke from the chairwoman of the Texas Veterans Commission, Laura Koerner.
Koerner is a U.S. Navy veteran appointed to the post by the governor.
“From my perspective, I’m not on the finance side, I wouldn’t necessarily call (the cemeteries) a loss, per se — it’s an investment in veterans,” she said during last month’s meeting. “I look at it from that perspective. Yes, there’s no income that matches the expense, but it’s a service we need to provide to our veterans. It’s an investment that has been made, and we need to determine where that money is going to come from going forward.”
The Veterans Land Board is responsible for paying cemetery employees salaries, offices supplies, equipment, dirt/soil and maintenance of the cemeteries.
The Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery in Killeen opened Jan. 4, 2006, and was the first of four cemeteries built and run by the Texas Veterans Land Board. The others are located in Corpus Christi, Mission and Abilene. There are currently 9,450 veterans buried at the Killeen cemetery, which has been expanded four times since its opening to now encompass 174 acres.
Mark Havens, chief clerk and deputy land commissioner at the Texas General Land Office, said the remarks made by Martin during the VLB cemetery meeting are in no way representative of the views of Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, a military veteran who is in charge of the GLO and grandson of the late President George H.W. Bush.
“Any statements that disparage these hallowed grounds are insulting to not only our veterans, but our state’s commitment to honoring those who have served,” Havens said in an email statement. “As a United States Navy veteran who deployed to Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom, Commissioner Bush believes that our cemeteries are hallowed grounds where some of America’s finest are laid to rest. The Commissioner has worked throughout his tenure to increase services and decrease the costs to families who choose to lay their loved ones to rest at our Texas State Veterans Cemeteries.”
Brown submitted his resignation letter to Havens on Nov. 10.
“We are grateful for Eric’s service to the state of Texas and his dedication to ensuring that our veterans are laid to rest with honor and respect. We wish him the best in his future endeavors,” Havens said.
“I fought the good fight for as long as I could, I’m worn out. They have to change their perspectives on veterans,” Brown said in an interview with the Herald earlier this month. “They signed on to these cemeteries years ago, and once you put a body in the ground it’s there forever. You can’t shirk your responsibility just because you think they are money losers. No cemetery, no veterans cemetery, in the state of Texas — anywhere in the nation — was meant to make money. That’s not the purpose of veteran cemeteries. They’re supposed to take care of our veterans. Just imagine if a Gold Star parent were to hear something like that. It just wouldn’t go over very well.”
Brown said that Martin probably shouldn’t be the person to make decisions concerning the veteran cemeteries since he is not a veteran.
“You need a veteran who understands what (the cemeteries) mean, who understands what it means when you fold that flag and hand it to a family member,” Brown said, adding Martin just doesn’t understand that.
The Herald reached out to Martin through the GLO for comment, but did not receive a reply before publication.
Brown attended many funerals at the four cemeteries and would often receive the folded flags on behalf of unaccompanied veterans, those who had no family members left to attend their funerals.
“Under my watch, I have buried 17,000 veterans and their families (statewide) — under my watch. When I first got here, there were only 7,000 (veterans and their spouses) buried. We have 24,000 people buried at the cemeteries now. They didn’t die in vain. So don’t say it’s money losing — they paid the costs already. There is only one place in Texas where you can’t reserve a burial plot — you have to earn it. Those headstones out there, they are the ‘Last Formation.’”