Special Report

Buried in the Gravel of Fort Bliss

A cemetery isn’t for the dead. It’s for the living.

By 10.17.13

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In a storybook setting, a cemetery is a peaceful, quiet place. Trees line stone-edged pathways. The wind whispers through trembling leaves. The grass is always lush and green. It’s the sort of place the living visit to remember, mourn, and remind themselves that their loved ones rest in a better place. It’s the sort of place you might want to spend some time.

Writing at the death of his friend John Keats, the British poet Percy Shelley remarked in the preface to Adonais:

The cemetery is an open space among the ruins, covered in winter with violets and daisies. It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.

We reserve a special solemnity for our military cemeteries. Anyone who’s had the opportunity to visit Arlington National Cemetery has experienced the gravity that swells in proximity to laid casualties and deceased veterans of this nation’s conflicts. Certain sites are particularly well-traveled. The Eternal Flame draws tourist trams. The Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns is a summer sell-out. The ceremonial Amphitheater hosts thousands of Americans on Easter, Veterans Day, and Memorial Day.

Past the bustle of high-traffic destinations, the sheer expanse of 220,000 modest headstones laid along 612 acres of rolling hills simply overwhelms. Twenty-some daily internments and inurnments may break the silence. Millions of visitors arrive each year to visit fathers and brothers, sisters and mothers, great- and grandparents buried beneath ground we share, but they have earned.

Try to imagine the national outcry if the sod was stripped from the earth and Arlington was blanketed in gravel.

That’s precisely what happened at the Fort Bliss National Cemetery in El Paso, Texas, when the ground was “xeriscaped” some years ago (the technique gets its name from a semantic hybrid of xeros (ξήρος), the Greek word for dry, and landscaping). The National Cemetery Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs initiated planning in 2002, and has since replaced grass with gravel to reduce water usage and maintenance costs. In 2007, the Associated Press reported the $3.7 million project began the year prior.

Years later, the sod — long-baked by sun and drought — has been replaced with dirt and loose stones. The gravel is manicured with care reserved for the dry landscape of Japanese Zen garden. However, heavy rains have sunk the graves and headstones of thousands of veterans into the parched soil.

At the time of the program’s instigation, the AP provided official estimates of resources saved:

The cemetery uses about 54 million gallons of water a year, which costs more than $75,000, officials said. Officials estimate 140 million gallons of water is needed annually to sustain the cemetery.

That’s all well and good, although some vets dispute the figures. Napkin math suggests that each acre would receive 1,707,317 gallons of water per year, or 4,677 gallons per day. Meanwhile, a cost of $75,000 annually isn’t a pittance but having devoted nearly $4 million towards the project means they won’t see a return on that investment for nearly 50 years.

Perhaps this explains the outrage in El Paso. Veterans see two military golf courses, on-base swimming pools, and a lush parade ground, and feel their cemetery has been robbed of its “dignity and sanctity.” Their resentment plunges deeper than the sunken tombstones and sink-holes that occur during the scattered rains and flash floods.

If a cemetery is a place for the living to come and pay their respects, many vets living near Fort Bliss feel family and friends lost that ability when the grass was stripped. Imagine kneeling to pray on a desert floor. Arid winds stir stinging dust. Rains soak muddy ground. Wheelchairs struggle over grit and gravel. Good luck finding a bench to sit upon.

But the Veterans Administrations tells them “this is best.”

Fort Bliss’s cemetery is no potter’s field. Encompassing 82.1 acres, the grounds hold more than 42,000 interments. It was the first national cemetery to convert from grass to xeriscaping. Only one other military cemetery, National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona in Phoenix, has been xeriscaped. Legislation was introduced to preserve the grass at the Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City, Nevada. In a 2009 piece published in the Las Vegas Sun during the legislative debate, Nevada Veterans Services Director Tim Tetz explained the xeriscape push had been tabled given bad publicity at the other sites. He remarked

“The reaction is that when you say veterans’ cemeteries, most people are going to think of the Punchbowl in Hawaii and Arlington Cemetery in Virginia. That’s what our society has come to understand as a veterans cemetery  —  stark white rows of perfectly aligned headstones that depict the heroes buried underneath them. That’s the vision across the nation.” 

Ironically, Fort Bliss cemetery officials saw a major uptick in visitors to the cemetery last September after rains damaged 1,300 graves. Family-members arrived to check on the repair of their loved-ones’ tombstones.

Frank Winslett, a local veteran who’s campaigned for a return to grass plots, commented, “No matter where [veterans] served, they all wanted to come home to the green, green grass of home.” No doubt their families feel they are owed the same return.

Author’s Note — On October 19, 2013 at 10:00 AM, “Veterans for the Green” will gather across from Fort Bliss National Cemetery to demand the return of the grass plots. For more information, please contact Frank Winslett, at 915.533.1212.

(Photo: UPI)

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About the Author

Reid Smith writes from Washington. Follow him on Twitter @reidtsmith