Feinstein in the News

By Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

Originially published in the Vallejo Times-Herald.

In a surprise though welcome move, Sen. Dianne Feinstein has introduced a bill to bring the basically abandoned Mare Island Cemetery under the auspices of the Veterans Administration.

Feinstein’s office had earlier suggested the senator considered it prudent to wait on the bill.

The companion bill — introduced on Thursday — to the one Rep. Mike Thompson recently introduced in the House is hoped to be the last major piece needed get a system in place to repair and maintain the west’s oldest military cemetery. State Sen. Bill Dodd also recently introduced a Senate Joint Resolution for the Mare Island Naval Cemetery.

Although no text summary of Feinstein’s bill was available Monday, the Congressional website says S.2881 – “A bill to direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to seek to enter into an agreement with the City of Vallejo, California, for the transfer of Mare Island Naval Cemetery in Vallejo, California, and for other purposes,” was introduced Thursday. It was read twice and referred to the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, it says.

“The Mare Island Naval Cemetery is the oldest military cemetery on the West Coast and it is the final resting place for more than 800 of our country’s heroes, some who served as far back as the War of 1812,” Feinstein said. “The cemetery’s current state is not a fitting tribute to the service and sacrifices of the men and women buried there. Once the cemetery is fully restored, our legislation will then place it under the V.A.’s control to properly honor their memory for generations.”

Nestor Aliga, a local veteran and one of those spearheading the cemetery effort, expressed gratitude to Sen. Feinstein for her effort. Aliga launched an online petition on the issue that already has tens of thousands of signatures.

“We are very grateful to Sen. Feinstein for introducing S.2881, the long-awaited Senate companion bill to Rep Thompson’s HR.5588,” he said. “We must now concentrate on getting two-thirds of our great nation’s senators (67) and representatives (291) to co-sponsor these bills, so they can get ‘hotlined’ — a process to pass the bills by unanimous consent and without a roll-call vote in order to quickly move the legislation.”

This is the latest move in an effort sparked about a year ago, when retired Navy Capt. Ralph Parrott made a day trip to Mare Island on a layover from Travis Air Force Base, stumbled on the dilapidated graveyard and determined to find it some help.

“This is absolutely great news,” Parrott said by phone from his home base near Washington, D.C., on Monday. “Needless to say this is a major milestone in our effort to obtain justice for the Mare Island Naval Cemetery. We all owe our gratitude to Senator Feinstein and her staff for their support as we seek to move the legislation forward. We need everyone to continue to push as hard as you can to get this legislation passed and signed this year. We have the momentum and we must continue to press on.”

Feinstein’s move follows a recent visit earlier this month by a contingent of federal officials who took a tour of the site with Vallejo Mayor Bob Sampayan, in advance of having members of the Innovation Readiness Training Program (IRT) clean up and repair the site. The visit included IRT officials, Representatives from the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the D.C. office of the Veterans Administration, and the Navy’s legal department, who were here at the behest of deputy assistant Navy secretary Karnig Ohannessian, Sampayan said.

Being under the VA prohibits a site from IRT attention, so, those working on this issue are hopeful that the desired transfer to the VA will be all ironed out by the time the IRT portion of the work is done.

A number of possible options have been suggested for righting the wrong done when the Navy handed Mare Island over to the City of Vallejo with the closure of the Naval Shipyard in 1996, without a mechanism in place for maintaining the cemetery. Already old, the site, containing some 900 graves of mostly military dead, including three Medal of Honor recipients, only continued deteriorating over the next decades, despite efforts by volunteers.

As it stands, it appears the plan is for the IRT to hopefully repair the site in 2019, after which the Legislative process will hopefully end up transferring the cemetery to the VA in perpetuity, organizers said.

“I want to take this opportunity to thank Congressman Thompson and his staff for their tireless work to move this issue forward. Additionally, my gratitude goes out to the VSOs who have signed on to support the effort,” Parrott said. “No thanks would be complete without recognizing the efforts of Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Environment) Mr. Karnig Ohannessian for his work in championing the IRT which, if approved, will provide much needed maintenance by military units in 2019. The IRT project will be a great compliment to the long-term fix the legislation promises. Now we must focus on getting this over the finish line this year. Keep smiling and press on.”