With its extensive system of veterans cemeteries and generous eligibility guidelines, Maryland has committed many millions of dollars to providing free burial for veterans and their spouses, as well as free maintenance of the graves. That is not an inconsiderable benefit -- burial, apart from funeral expenses, can cost $2,000 or more. So it is no surprise that Maryland's veterans cemeteries are the busiest state cemetery program in the country.
Inevitably, the costs of the $1.5 million-a-year program are growing -- and, not surprisingly, drawing the scrutiny of budget analysts as the state's budget crunch worsens. As The Evening Sun's Jon Morgan reported yesterday, a report to the House subcommittee on Education and Human Resources has suggested that the legislature consider qualifying its liberal eligibility requirements for these cemeteries. In our view, that's not a bad idea at all. But the suggestion makes legislators skittish. What elected official wants to limit veterans' benefits at a time when Marylanders are risking their lives in the Persian Gulf?
That is an understandable question, but in this case it may be the wrong one. Certainly any country owes a great deal to the men and women who put their lives at risk in military service and, in most respects, this country has compiled an admirable record for its treatment of veterans. But state resources are not infinite, not even for veterans, and the important question governments -- federal and state -- need to be asking themselves is: What awaits the veterans who will be returning home from the current war? Too many Vietnam veterans returned from a hellish war to find another kind of hell waiting for them at home -- an American Dream that, for them, was out of reach. True gratitude to veterans encompasses more than handouts; it also takes into account the opportunities that await veterans as they go about the business of re-establishing their lives and building a home and career. Generosity in death is commendable, but not if it comes at the expense of helping veterans live a fruitful and fulfilling life.