Fort Indiantown Gap National Cemetery in Lebanon County is hallowed ground. It’s a final resting place for more than 36,000 veterans, with about 1,800 new arrivals each year.
Not too far from the cemetery’s entrance, you’ll find a headstone for Harrisburg’s George Siple. It says he was a U.S. Air Force veteran of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam; a triple-header of American conflict. He also earned the prestigious Purple Heart medal.
In 1999, Siple was buried at Indiantown Gap with full military honors. He was, by all appearances, a hero.
But etched granite headstones don’t tell the whole story.
“He may have been an honorable veteran, but he didn’t die honorably,” said Deborah Swartz, a family friend of Harrisburg’s Bertie Smith.
In 1969, Siple murdered Smith, a state worker, in Harrisburg’s Kline Plaza with a shotgun. Siple spent the rest of his life in prison. But then in death, he was celebrated at the Gap. Congressman Lou Barletta (R-11th District) calls that wrong.
“A VA (Veterans’ Administration) national cemetery is a place of honor and I don’t think it’s too much to say that murderers should not be buried next to true American heroes,” Barletta said at a news conference in Harrisburg announcing his proposed legislation to kick killers out.
Barletta’s bill would require the VA to do a full criminal background check before allowing veterans to be buried in national cemeteries. Congress passed a law in 1997 to keep murderers out. Somehow, Siple got in two years later. In 2013, Congress passed a law allowing the removal of convicted murderers but only moving forward. So Siple, buried in 1999, fell into a gap at the Gap. Barletta would like to close it for all 132 national cemeteries and their 3.4 million military graves.
“I’m sure he’s not the only one that’s left out there in the country,” Swartz said. “I’m sure it might open Pandora’s Box, so to speak, because there’s probably many of them out there in the United States.”
But Barletta is not focused on the many. He focused on Siple. He wants him exhumed and ejected from the Gap. And he wants to do it, he says, for Bertie’s daughter Jackie Katz. Jackie now lives in California but returned to Harrisburg for the news conference. She wiped away tears as Barletta talked about his bill and refused comment afterward.
“The memories of victims of people like Bertie Smith should not be disregarded,” Barletta said, “and their families should not be constantly reminded of their loss while the murderer is buried in a place of honor.”