Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery inches closer to becoming national burial ground

Billings Gazette

by Cindy Uken

The transition of the Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery to a national cemetery is under way.

John Ostlund, chair of the Yellowstone County Commission, received a letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs asking him to identify someone as a contact person “to begin this discussion.”

“We’re pretty enthusiastic,” Ostlund said, adding that his colleague, Commissioner Bill Kennedy, a longtime champion of this effort, will serve as the county’s official point person.

“There was a time when it seemed as though the odds of our ability to move forward with this seemed against us,” Kennedy said. “But this letter is the first step in the VA’s effort to start to acquire the cemetery. It is an indication they want to sit down with us and begin negotiating what it will cost to take over the cemetery.”

The letter, according to Kennedy, formalizes what county commissioners and all three members of Montana’s congressional delegation, Democratic Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus and Republican Congressman Denny Rehberg, have asked for all along.

Kennedy predicted that the Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery, located north of Laurel, will be designated a national cemetery within six months to a year.

News that the VA is working with Yellowstone County means that no Congressional legislation is needed to recognize the cemetery as a VA national cemetery.

The VA’s letter didn’t appear out of nowhere. Earlier this year, Tester wrote VA Secretary Eric Shinseki on behalf of Yellowstone County. In 2011, he brought Shinseki to Montana to hear from veterans about the issue.

“Montana veterans deserve the honor of a final resting place in a VA national cemetery in our state,” said Tester, Montana’s only member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “Today’s news is a reflection on the men and women of the Big Sky State who fought for our freedoms and for national recognition of this important cemetery.”

Tester announced in February that the President’s latest budget proposal allowed the VA’s National Cemetery Administration to purchase land from rural cemeteries in eight states, including Montana. Under the initiative, the newly purchased land would receive National Cemetery status by establishing National Veterans Burial Grounds within the boundaries of existing public or private cemeteries. The VA would operate and maintain the property at an estimated $80,000 cost annually. The government would also incur capital equipment costs.

Congress would have to appropriate money for the plan. Rehberg, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said he included language in the bill that would permit the NCA to make the purchase.

"It’s growing increasingly clear that if my language passes the Senate, Yellowstone County we will be closer to a national designation than we have ever been before,” Rehberg said. “I’m working closely with local officials to make sure this project is prominent on the VA radar. Working together, we can get a national cemetery that serves not only the local community, but the entire region."

The Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery, the nation's only locally financed veterans cemetery, is a $1.5 million, eight-acre burial ground on the north side of Laurel. From its beginning, it was designed to meet national standards and was dedicated on Veterans Day in 2008. The first burial, a Purple Heart veteran, was in December 2008.

About 80 veterans and spouses have been interred since the cemetery opened. Lately, one or two burials per week have been scheduled.

As part of the national designation, Yellowstone County would pay off the debt, currently about $1.3 million, it incurred to design and build the cemetery. The debt is paid with an annual $225,000 dedicated county property tax levy.

Many veterans want to be buried in a national cemetery because it saves on financial hardships to families.

Benefits at the Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery include a U.S. burial flag, perpetual care of the grave site and a memorial certificate bearing the president's signature. Funeral home services are not covered. Burial plots, headstone and markers are free for the veteran. A fee is assessed for casket burials, casket vaults and cremated remains. A nominal surcharge is also assessed for out-of-county residents.

The Veterans Administration operates more than 100 National Cemeteries. The best-known National Cemetery is Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C., which is operated by the U.S. Army.

National cemeteries provide many of the same benefits as county cemeteries, although the families of veterans may be eligible for more financial help with burial costs and other burial allowances such as being buried with a spouse.

Yellowstone County is Montana's most populated county and has the highest percentage of military veterans in the state with more than 20 percent, the highest percentage in the nation. Until now, the VA has told local leaders and veterans that Montana doesn't have enough veterans to warrant a national cemetery.

A National Veterans Cemetery designation requires that 80,000 veterans live within a 75-mile radius of the cemetery. VA has developed a set of criteria for establishing the National Veterans Burial Grounds in locations where no more than 25,000 veterans reside, and where these veterans do not have reasonable access to burial in a national or state veterans cemetery.

Cemeteries at a glance
Montana currently has one closed National Veterans Cemetery and three other state veterans cemeteries:

— Western Montana State Veterans Cemetery in Missoula, 350 miles from Billings.

— Eastern Montana State Veterans Cemetery in Miles City, 150 miles from Billings.

— Fort Harrison, 275 miles from Billings.

— Custer National Cemetery at the Little Bighorn Battlefield is closed to interments.

Only one of Montana's neighboring states, South Dakota, has a national cemetery.