Denise Anderson lost her only son in the Iraq war. She's determined not to lose her fight to be buried with him in a national veterans cemetery.
Army Spc. Corey Shea died Nov. 12, 2008, in Mosul, with one about a month left on his tour of duty in Iraq. He was buried at the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne, about 50 miles from his hometown of Mansfield, Mass.
A grieving Anderson, 42, soon hit an obstacle in her quest to be buried in the same plot with her son. That chance is offered only to the spouses or children of dead veterans; Corey Shea was 21, single and childless.
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The Veterans Affairs Department grants waivers and has approved four similar requests from dead soldiers' parents since 2005.
Anderson also sought a waiver. But under the VA's policy, she has to die first to get one, a limbo that Anderson finds tough to live with.
"It was the most devastating blow that I could ever get," Anderson said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I just miss him so much. Just being with him will give me some sort of peace."
"Every day I wake up and I look at his pictures and I cry," she said. "It doesn't get any easier. Maybe down the road I will be able to deal with it a little bit better, but right now it's not easy."
VA spokeswoman Laurie Tranter said Anderson's waiver request was not granted because it was made "in advance of her time of need, which is VA's policy for all such waiver requests." Tranter noted, however, that just in case, Corey Shea's remains "were placed at a sufficient depth to accommodate her future burial."
Anderson doesn't understand why her request can't be granted now. She is challenging the VA's burial policy with support from her congressman, Rep. Barney Frank, and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
"The disproportion between what this country owes her and what she is asking is just as large as can be," Frank said.
The two lawmakers are pushing the Corey Shea Act, a bill that would allow burial privileges for biological or adoptive parents of dead veterans who are buried in any of the 130 cemeteries run by the VA's National Cemetery Administration. The legislation does not apply to burials at Arlington National Cemetery, which is maintained by the Army.
Under the bill, parents would be allowed burial space if their deceased veteran sons and daughters had no living spouses or minor children, and if there is available space at the gravesite. The veteran in question also must have been killed in battle or in preparation for battle.
Frank's measure passed the House as part of a broader bill. Kerry is optimistic about the measure's prospects in the Senate.
"No mothers or fathers of a fallen soldier should have to worry about their child being buried alone," Kerry said. "I think Corey Shea would be unbelievably proud of his mother for her determined efforts to honor his memory and ease the burden for other parents who have experienced unbearable loss."
The response from veteran's advocacy groups has been mixed.
Ruth Stonesifer, national president of American Gold Star Mothers, said most members of her group support the bill. She said she's heard of about a dozen parents who want to be buried with their children in national cemeteries.
AMVETS, however, said the measure would set a bad precedent for the veterans benefits system.
"Certainly we empathize with our Gold Star families," said AMVETS spokesman Jay Agg. "In this particular case, we really have to fall on the side on protecting the integrity of the veterans benefits system. The position of AMVETS is that the benefits are for service members and their eligible dependents."
Groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the nation's largest organization of combat veterans, the American Legion and the National Military Family Association said they've not taken a position on the measure.
The VA initially had concerns that broadening eligibility for burials would mean fewer gravesites available for veterans. They noted that more than two people could qualify for burial as the parents in cases involving a combination of birth parents, adoptive parents, step parents or foster parents.
"We believe that preserving sufficient burial space for veterans should take priority over burial eligibility for others, and the original bill was very broad," Tranter said.
To address those concerns, the bill was amended so only biological or adoptive parents could qualify.
Anderson said she's determined to see the bill become law.
"I'm the kind of person who doesn't like to take 'no' for an answer," she said. "I shouldn't have to ask to be buried with my son."
Anderson said she was a single mom until Corey was about 8 and that they were especially close. She recalled working 60 hours a week to support them.
"He always had a smile on his face," she said. "He had the biggest heart whatsoever. He'd do anything for anybody."
Now, she's embarrassed about having to challenge the VA for a chance to maintain, in death, the bond she and her son enjoyed in life.
"He was my heart and soul," Anderson said. "It was like losing a twin. That's how I feel. And it is just really important to me that I be alongside him. I want to spend my eternity with him."
The Senate bill is S. 2096.
The House bill is H.R. 3949
On the Net:
Veterans Affairs Department: http://www.va.gov/
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