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‘I want to be buried with my brothers and sisters who served’

State lifts restrictions on interring Guard and Reserve veterans at cemetery

Cheryl LeBlanc buried her husband, Dave, at the New Hampshire Veterans Cemetery Thursday, grateful he’s aside thousands of other men and women who served their country. Two weeks ago, LeBlanc would have been turned away because federal cemetery rules didn’t recognize her husband’s National Guard service.

“I know the difference between active duty and guardsmen,” said LeBlanc, of Nottingham. “But they still put the uniform on. Anyone who does that, they don’t know what they are getting into. They just know they are putting the uniform on and can be deployed anywhere.”

Those eligibility restrictions were lifted last week – in New Hampshire at least –  and LeBlanc’s funeral was the first under a new “burial equity” law co-sponsored by New Hampshire’s federal delegation.

Signed in March, the law says the Department of Veterans Affairs can no longer deny federal cemetery funding to states that expand eligibility to veterans like LeBlanc and their dependents. But states must decide whether to take that step because state – not federal – money must pay for those additional interment costs.

The Executive Council approved a request from the New Hampshire Veterans Cemetery to expand eligibility on June 1, making New Hampshire just the third state to do so, said Shawn Buck, cemetery director. 

“We don’t expect reimbursement from the federal government,” Buck said. “But we would like it to allow us to inter these people without putting (federal) funds at risk.” 

Cheryl LeBlanc was the first to bury a newly eligible veteran at the cemetery, and she did it on the sixth anniversary of her husband’s death. He joined a Concord National Guard unit in the early 1970s while attending school. He served six years.

“He’s beaming right now, wherever he is,” she said. “I remember we’d go there for other friends and relatives, and we’d stand there and say how beautiful it was. I’m thrilled that he’s going to have the opportunity to rest in peace.”

Sy Mahfuz of Nashua is also among the newly eligible veterans.

He was 17 when his birth date was drawn in a draft lottery, requiring him to serve. Mahfuz joined a Manchester Army Reserve unit rather than active duty because it allowed him to continue managing part of his family’s fourth-generation rug business. He was initially reluctant.

“I told (my father) that I thought I could die,” Mahfuz, 71, recalled. “He looks at me and has tears in eyes and says, ‘Look, your grandfather didn’t bring us here from Damascus so that we would run away from protecting this country after this country wanted us to come here.’ I had never heard that kind of patriotism before.”

Mahfuz says now his six years serving as a drill sergeant defined his life, teaching him discipline, respect, service, and how to be a good husband and father. In the years following his discharge, he helped raise millions of dollars for veterans organizations and, for the last three years, worked on the new eligibility legislation with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s office.

For Mahfuz, the cemetery is more than only a burial plot. “I want to be buried with my brothers and sisters who served. I was not just a reservist. I was in the Army and happened to be a reservist. I did everything expected of me and more. If they had called me, I would have gone where they told me to go.”

The cemetery contains the remains of 14,618 people, 73 percent of them veterans and the rest dependents, Buck said. His office is reaching out to the nearly 200 people whose applications were denied under the old rules. 

“My staff is going through and reviewing them to see if we have what we need or, if necessary, to ask for additional documents to determine eligibility,” Buck said. Within the first eight days of the rule change, the office had approved 16 previously denied applications.

The prior eligibility rules restricted interment to veterans who did not have a dishonorable discharge and their dependents if the veteran served on active duty; completed a federal activation; or retired from the National Guard or Reserves. Guard and Reserve veterans like Mahfuz and LeBlanc, who left prior to retirement or were never activated, were not eligible.

Moving forward, costs for interment for veterans of the Guard and Reserve will be similar. There is no cost for veterans who live in New Hampshire or those who lived outside the state but served on active duty, completed a federal activation, or retired from the National Guard or Reserve. Consistent with previous fees, there is a $350 interment cost for dependents of those who served in the Guard and Reserve.

Newly eligible Guard and Reserve veterans who live outside the state will be charged $850 because the state pays for those interments without federal reimbursement. Non-resident dependents of Guard and Reserve veterans will incur the same $850 fee. 

With so few states currently expanding eligibility, Buck said it was important to protect state finances if veterans from outside New Hampshire seek burial here.

Shaheen said in a statement that she sponsored the federal legislation expanding eligibility after hearing from Guard and Reserve veterans and their families. “This shouldn’t have ever been up for debate,” she said. “Every American who risks their life to serve our country should be recognized with a proper burial in veterans cemeteries. I’m pleased my bill is now law – this is a meaningful and overdue change.”

Congressman Chris Pappas joined Shaheen, introducing the bill in the House. “It’s unimaginable that members of the National Guard and Reserves who swore the same oath as their active duty counterparts have been denied the honor of being laid to rest next to their brothers and sisters in arms,” he said in a statement.