Shinseki says he will look 'very hard' at creating National Veterans Cemetery in Laurel

Billings Gazette

by Cindy Uken

The nation’s top veteran has pledged to give serious consideration to making Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery the next National Veterans’ Cemetery for Montana and the region.

“We’re looking at this very hard,” U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said during a two-day tour of Montana. “Sen. (Jon) Tester has asked me … more than several times, to do what I could to ensure that the veterans in this part of the country be laid to rest in a dignified and respectful way like veterans are in other parts of the country. And, I’ve assured him I would do that.”

Shinseki has the sole authority to bestow the designation should he decide to do so.

The Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery, the nation’s only locally financed veterans cemetery, is a $1.5 million, 8-acre burial-ground in Laurel. From its beginning, it was designed and built to meet national standards and was dedicated on Veterans Day 2008. The first burial, a Purple Heart veteran, was committed in December 2008.

If it becomes a National Veterans Cemetery, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs would take over annual operating and maintenance costs, an estimated $80,000 annually, according to Scott Turner, finance director for Yellowstone County. The government would also incur capital equipment costs.

As part of the arrangement, Yellowstone County would agree to retain and pay off the debt it incurred to design and build the cemetery. As of June 30, the debt was $1.3 million. The debt is paid for with an annual $225,000 dedicated county property tax levy.

Many veterans want to be buried in a national cemetery because it saves any hardship on families, said Yellowstone County Commissioner Bill Kennedy.

“It will happen,” Kennedy said. “It’s just a matter of time.”

Benefits at 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, cremated remains in ground or columbarium. A nominal surcharge is also assessed for out-of-county residents.

The Veterans Administration operates more than 100 National Cemeteries around the country — the best-known being Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, D.C. — and provides no-cost burial for eligible persons. Burial benefits at a national cemetery include a grave site in any cemetery with available space, opening and closing of the grave, perpetual care, a government headstone or marker, a burial flag, and a Presidential Memorial Certificate at no cost to the family. Some veterans may also be eligible for burial allowances.

Burial benefits available for spouses and dependents buried in a national cemetery include burial with the veteran, perpetual care, with the spouse or dependents name and date of birth and death inscribed on the veteran’s headstone. Eligible spouses and dependents may be buried, even if they predecease the veteran.

Money issues aside, Kennedy said to be buried in a National Veterans Cemetery “is just a great honor.”

In pledging his commitment to further studying the national designation, Shinseki readily acknowledged that Yellowstone County is Montana’s largest populated county with the highest percentage of military veterans — more than 20 percent — in the state. In fact, Montana as a whole has the highest percentage of military veterans of any state. Shinseki’s acknowledgment of the vast distances and sparse population — 500,000 square miles without a national cemetery – could be the pivotal point in the decision. Until now, the VA has told local leaders and veterans that Montana doesn’t have enough veterans to warrant a national cemetery.

A national cemetery designation requires that 80,000 veterans live within a 75-mile radius of the cemetery. It is the single biggest requirement to securing the national designation.

The issue is clearly garnering momentum. On Thursday, the Senate voted 97-2 to pass the Military Construction and Veterans Appropriations Act, which includes language to reduce the population threshold requirement for establishing VA national cemeteries.

In a letter to Shinseki, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer said he believes that every state should have a national cemetery. “It is not about demographics,” Schweitzer said. “It is about our nation paying its due respect to those who have given the utmost on its behalf.”

Local and statewide veterans, along with local elected officials, statewide officials, Democratic Sens. Tester and Max Baucus and U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg have long lobbied for the National Veterans Cemetery designation. A year ago, Yellowstone County Commissioners submitted a formal request for the national designation along with 167 pages of documentation.

Their efforts paid dividends.

“The opportunity to have the VA Secretary in Billings is tremendous,” said Kennedy. “It’s huge. It’s a coup. He is committed to helping our veterans and his message was very positive. He did not say no. It still gives me goosebumps. Sen. Tester did his due diligence in getting him here. That was critical.”

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 Big Horn Battle Field is closed to interments.

Only one of Montana’s contiguous states, South Dakota, has a national cemetery.