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They served, too: Opening NH's 'hallowed ground' to all Guardsmen and Reservists

The first time Sy Mahfuz visited the New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery in Boscawen, he knew he wanted to make this quiet place of memory and honor his final resting place.

“Nothing would make me more proud than to be buried in the cemetery with all of my friends who served,” said Mahfuz, who lives in Nashua.

But when he asked, Mahfuz was told he was not eligible. Although he spent six years in the Army Reserve, serving during the height of the Vietnam war, Mahfuz was told that only those who served on active duty could be buried there.

Now that may change.

All four members of New Hampshire’s congressional delegation are sponsoring the Burial Equity for Guards and Reserves Act of 2020, which would modify existing law to allow state veterans cemeteries to decide whether to inter honorably discharged members of the Guard and Reserve, and their spouses.

Currently, under the rules of the Department of Veterans Affairs, only guardsmen and reservists who have been called to active duty are allowed to be buried there if such cemeteries receive federal grant funding, which the New Hampshire cemetery relies on.

Burial in a state’s veterans cemetery is “a privilege that we reserve for our heroes,” said Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., who introduced the bill last week with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. “And for generations, members of the Guard and Reserves have been called upon at home and abroad to serve in so many heroic ways,” he said.Paul Lloyd, the new chairman of the State Veterans Advisory Committee (SVAC), also serves on the board for the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton. A few years back, state lawmakers passed a law to allow guardsmen and reservists to live there, he said.

The proposed change to federal burial benefits would be in line with that, Lloyd said. “I think the bottom line is, just because they didn’t deploy doesn’t mean they didn’t sign on the bottom line,” he said.

The SVAC supports the new legislation, he said, “And hopefully we can get it through without any issues down in D.C.”

But the VA does not support the bill.

At a hearing before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on Thursday, Pappas read from written testimony submitted by the VA. To extend burial eligibility in state cemeteries that receive federal grants to members of the Reserves and National Guard “would diminish the distinct honor of those veterans and service members who have earned a similar burial benefit in VA national cemeteries,” the agency said.

Lloyd called that “a slap in the face.”

And, he said, “If that’s their only stand, they don’t have a leg to stand on.”

Proving themselves

Opposition to the Vietnam War was raging when Mahfuz and a group of his friends gathered in front of a television in 1970 to watch the lottery that would tell them their fates. Back then, Selective Service picked birthdays at random to determine who would be drafted.

Mahfuz’ birthday, April 20, was the only one among his friends that was picked.

“I was devastated,” he recalled.

He told his father he wanted to flee to Canada, something other high school seniors were doing in those days. But his father, who came to this country from Syria at 14, tearfully told him, “I will disown you if you don’t serve this great country.”

“I’m 70 years old and his emotion is still with me to this day,” Mahfuz said.

Mahfuz joined the Army Reserve and was assigned to the Manchester armory, training National Guardsmen who were heading to Vietnam. His military service made him the man he is today, he said.

But reservists were treated like “second-rate citizens” by active-duty soldiers, Mahfuz said. “They would call us ‘shake-and-bake’ soldiers,” a reference to how quickly they were trained to fill a shortage of drill sergeants.

David Kenney, chairman emeritus of SVAC, remembers that too. When he joined the Navy Reserve in the 1980s, “We were not always looked on favorably by the active-duty guys,” he said.

But Operation Desert Storm in early 1991 changed that, he said. “The Guard and Reserves were called up en masse for that operation, and they proved themselves worthy in the eyes of many of the active-duty folks,” he said.

A decade later came the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, when Guard and Reserve units were called up on multiple deployments. “They became no longer a supplemental force. They were a fully trained augmentation force,” Kenney said.

“We call on these guys all the time and they stand up,” he said. “They all wear the same uniform.”

Deserving of honor

Kenney said he would be surprised to hear of any active-duty members in New Hampshire who would oppose the burial benefit. “They know that these folks stand on the wall with them, and there’s no difference,” he said.

Shawn Buck, director of the veterans cemetery, said he is proud that New Hampshire has taken the lead on the new legislation, which he said “allows us to honor the heroic act of volunteering.”

The nation’s all-volunteer military depends on people stepping forward to serve, and members of the Guard and Reserves are a critical component of that, Buck said. “It just seems right that we would honor them in a state veterans cemetery with burial, because they raised their right hand and said ‘I’ll go,’ whether it’s a state emergency or a national emergency.”

As of the beginning of July, 12,430 military members have been buried in the veterans cemetery in Boscawen, according to Buck. With about 47,300 plots remaining, at the current rate of burials and cremations, he figures the cemetery wouldn’t need more land until sometime in the 2090s.

Buck pledged to contact other state veterans cemeteries around the country to enlist support. “I’ll do my part,” he said.

Nashua veteran Mahfuz said as a reservist, he knew he could be sent to Vietnam. “I ask the question: If I was willing to serve, and I was willing to die, and I was willing to do whatever it was the military expected of me … how does that make me less of a soldier? How does it make me less of a veteran?

“I didn’t control my destiny,” he said. “They did.”