Lawmakers, veterans work to repatriate remains of American sailors killed in Libya two centuries ago

Caroline May | Reporter

Veterans groups are one step closer to achieving the long-held goal of repatriating the remains of 13 sailors killed and buried in Tripoli 207 years ago during the war with the Barbary Pirates.

Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller, Arkansas Republican Sen. John Boozman and Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown have introduced legislation that would put the force of law behind the USO’s heralded motto “Until Everyone Comes Home.”

“Our nation has a responsibility to make sure that any fallen member of the Armed Forces is treated with respect,” said Heller. “For more than two hundred years, these sailors have laid to rest in a cemetery on foreign soil. It’s past time that we give these men a proper military burial in the country they died defending.”

The three senators’ bill would require the Defense Department to exhume the remains of the sailors, killed in the explosion of the USS Intrepid, from Tripoli; identify them; and send them to veterans cemeteries closest to the deceased sailors’ living family members.

If the remains cannot be identified, they would be interred at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

The legislative proposal is the Senate’s answer to similar House language passed in May as part of the defense authorization bill.

“This legislation serves as a reminder to all service men and women that we will never cease in our efforts to bring a fallen service member home, nor will we ever forget the sacrifices that have been made by them and their families,” said Boozman.

American Legion spokesman Marty Callaghan told The Daily Caller that with Gadhafi dead and a new government in transition, now would be a good time to bring these men home.

“It seems like a good time to really push after more than two centuries,” Callaghan said. “And there have been several attempts through the years to try to bring these heroes home, and always something has gotten in the way.”

Callaghan explained that some of the sailors are currently buried in Martyrs’ Square, and others are buried in a poorly kept Protestant cemetery which has been used as a burial site for diplomats through the centuries.

In a letter to Heller on Tuesday, Veterans of Foreign Wars’ national legislative director Raymond Kelley offered his group’s support for the initiative.

“For more than 200 years these war heroes have laid to rest in a cemetery on foreign soil,” Kelly wrote. “Unlike other U.S. graves on foreign soil such as Normandy, these heroes received no military burial. In fact several sailors are buries in one ‘mass’ grave, testifying to the disrespect shown when they were interned. It is time to bring them home to have a proper military burial.”

Callaghan noted that the effort to bring these sailors back has met opposition from the U.S. Navy, which considers Tripoli to be the sailors’ final resting place.

“Navy custom and tradition has been to honor the final resting place of those lost in downed ships and aircraft,” Adm. Gary Roughead, then chief of naval operations, wrote in 2008, according to Stars and Stripes. “The Navy considers the Tripoli cemetery to be the final resting place of these Sailors who sacrificed their lives for our Nation.”

But with veterans groups pushing, Congress has taken notice.

“Gathering the remains of these brave sailors, two of whom were from Massachusetts, demonstrates America’s commitment to pay tribute to our fallen heroes, no matter how much time has passed,” said Brown. “With reports that some still remain in a mass grave, we have a duty to ensure our sailors are buried with the honor and respect they deserve.”

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