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Vet pushes for columbarium at VA medical center

A retired Army colonel seeks to have a repository for veterans' ashes constructed at the site. The Los Angeles National Cemetery nearby has been closed to new burials for decades.

November 03, 2012|By Matt Stevens, Los Angeles Times
  • Retired Army Col. Dick Littlestone walks in the small columbarium at the Los Angeles National Cemetery. He is pushing a proposal for a much bigger such facility nearby on the West Los Angeles VA campus.
Retired Army Col. Dick Littlestone walks in the small columbarium at the… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

The documents Dick Littlestone has spent more than a decade collecting have been meticulously prepared for presentation.

Stacks of them are fanned across his desk, staggered neatly like Venetian blinds. Maps have been highlighted in pink. Photographs have captions handwritten on the backs.

For more than a decade, this 89-year-old retired Army colonel has pushed and prodded the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to build a columbarium — a storage place for thousands of veterans' ashes — on the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center campus. The Los Angeles National Cemetery, which is adjacent, has been considered closed to new burials since 1978.

But his lonely quest has been stymied by seemingly endless governmental red tape, and a piece of the columbarium site remains occupied by rusting pipes.

Littlestone admits to pent up frustration, but doesn't lash out. Instead, he has enlisted others in his cause, winning over powerful politicians and politely, always politely, reminding them to help.

Staffers for the politicians praise Littlestone's gentle persistence and genuine passion — even as they also lament the slow pace of the process.

"I admire Colonel Littlestone enormously," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), whose district includes the VA land. "He's worked so hard on [the columbarium] and it's needed. We're doing everything we can to see it come to fruition."

Littlestone grew up near the corner of Normandie Avenue and Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. He attended West Point, and his 32 years of Army service include combat stints in Korea and Vietnam. He lives in Pacific Palisades.

Officials in Waxman's office say Littlestone first contacted them with his columbarium idea in 2001. Six years and several letters later, Littlestone met with then-VA Secretary Jim Nicholson, who approved a plan that called for a land transfer and construction of the columbarium. But it took four more years before Waxman's office got word that the VA had hired a contractor to build it. By then, a decade had passed.

The 13 acres selected for the columbarium would open up about 10,000 niches after the first phase of construction, and ten times that number by completion. Los Angeles County is home to more than 300,000 former servicemen and women — the most in the nation.

"To me it's just a terrible thing that the veterans in L.A. can't be buried here," Littlestone said. "Riverside is the next closest national cemetery. That's too … far for people."

But in email correspondence with Waxman's office this July, VA Headquarters issued a laundry list of hurdles preventing Littlestone's project from breaking ground. It was unclear how long it would take to overcome obstacles like an oil lease and sharing agreement, VA spokeswoman Jo Schuda said.

Both Waxman and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) have sent correspondence to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki demanding answers in recent weeks. The office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has also raised the issue with officials at the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center. But VA officials say they still have no set timeline to begin construction or open the columbarium.

Littlestone has been battling ill health, but it has not interrupted his campaign. On a recent Tuesday, he drove to the National Cemetery. In the distance, rolling hills of manicured green grass and white tombstones, evenly spaced, dotted the landscape.

Littlestone went under the freeway overpass and pulled onto an unmarked strip of dirt. He pointed at a yellow pole that gates off a storage area for pipes and concrete slabs.

"This is it," Littlestone said as a forklift rolled by.

He is scheduled to have open-heart surgery Tuesday and said he is confident the procedure will go well. But he also acknowledged that he is "making preparations to be sure my wife and family are taken care of."

He hopes his final resting place will be somewhere behind that yellow pole.

"I just feel that it would be good to have something there, and if some silly child or grandchild would like to say 'Hey, where's that guy?' — well, there he is. And I feel that's the way it should be for all veterans," Littlestone said. "They should all have a place to be buried."

Times staff writer Martha Groves contributed to this report.

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