Director visits Laurel to consider designating a National Veterans Cemetery

Laurel Outlook

by Larry Tanglen

Frank K. Salvas, Sr., with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration, left, visited the Laurel Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery with Yellowstone County Commissioner Bill Kennedy Thursday morning. The cemetery is being considered as a possible National Veterans Cemetery. Outlook photo by Larry Tanglen

Frank K. Salvas, Sr., director of State Cemetery Grants Services, with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration in Washington, DC, was in Laurel Thursday morning to visit the Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery which is under consideration for designation as a National Veterans Cemetery.

The 8-acre cemetery was dedicated on Veterans Day 2008. Since then, there have been 53 burials in the cemetery.

The cemetery's first phase was built in 2008 with phased expansions on additional space as needed on adjacent state-owned lands, north of Laurel Airport Road. The location could be expanded to 45 acres in size.

Yellowstone County taxpayers threw their support behind the effort to establish the veterans cemetery in 2006 when they approved a $225,000, one-mill levy to fund establishment and maintenance of the cemetery. The levy passed by a wide margin. The cemetery was constructed to meet national standards.

After eating breakfast at the Owl Café Thursday morning, Salvas toured the cemetery site with Yellowstone County Commissioner Bill Kennedy; Rachel Court, with Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester's office; Joe Foster, administrator of the Montana Veterans Affairs Division, and local members of the United Veterans Council.

Last November Sen. Tester sponsored a provision in the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Act requiring the National Cemetery Administration to study the possibility of creating a national cemetery in Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, Idaho, or eastern Washington. There is currently no national cemetery in the region between Minneapolis, MN and Spokane, WA. Tester's language in the provision specifically directed the agency to consider turning the Yellowstone County Cemetery in Laurel into a National Veterans Cemetery.

“Yellowstone County would be honored to be home to a national veterans' cemetery,” Commissioner Kennedy said at the time.

“The people involved with this Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery have really made an honest effort to do the right thing here,” Salvas said after he had completed his tour of the site.

Commissioner Kennedy told Salvas, “When you see the tears in the eyes of the veterans and spouses of deceased veterans in the crowd on Memorial Day or Veterans Day – we know it was the right thing for us to do.”

Salvas agreed. “That's our ‘pay day,'” he told Kennedy.

Salvas told the veterans at the cemetery that he will return to his office in Washington, review the information he has gathered and the other information he has requested and make a recommendation to his boss, Steve L. Muro, Acting Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs. He said it was too soon to say how quickly that decision might come, but he did assure them that a decision will get made.

His visit was prompted by Congress' recommendation to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki that the site be considered for National Veterans Cemetery status. “Senators Tester and Baucus supported the bill to honor veterans and respect their service to our country,” he said.

While Salvas was quick to praise the work that has already been done here, he pointed out that it is a “very big deal” to be granted the National Veterans Cemetery designation. If that should happen, the U.S. Government would become the owner of the site and responsible for all expenses related to its operation. Neither the State or the County would have to pay for its operation or maintenance.

If the cemetery were to be designated a State Veterans Cemetery, the federal government would pay for the construction and expansion of the site and the State would maintain ownership of the site and be responsible for its operation. The Laurel site has been passed over recently by the State Legislature for the State Veterans Cemetery designation in favor of sites at Missoula and Miles City.

Foster said he would return to Helena and get a letter of support for the National Veterans Cemetery designation from Governor Brian Schweitzer to include with the other materials being gathered for Salvas by Kennedy.

One obstacle the site faces is the current standard that there must be 80,000 veterans that could be served within 75 miles of the site. Salvas noted that there are only 25,000 veterans in Yellowstone County. He added though, “It is our goal to treat all veterans the same.” That may mean taking into consideration the lower population density in this region of the country.

Presently, the closest open National Veterans Cemetery is located in Sturgis, SD. “One of the favorable factors for this site (Laurel) is that the Northwest is not as favorably served by National Cemeteries as other areas,” he said.

If the designation is awarded, it would be a “highly unique situation,” according to Salvas. He said he only knows of one other time when a National Veterans Cemetery designation was awarded to an area that did not meet the minimum number of veterans to be served and the distance requirement.

Salvas said it would be unprecedented if the National designation is granted to the Laurel site. That being said, he added, “But there are a lot of things we do just because they are the right thing to do.”

Now, Salvas will wait for materials he has requested from Yellowstone County for review. Then he will make a recommendation to his boss. Secretary Shinseki will make a final decision about whether to bring the Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery into the national system.

There is no active national VA Cemetery in North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho or eastern Washington – an area encompassing about 500,000 square miles.

Designation as a national veterans cemetery would mean burials at no cost to the veteran's family and the VA would assume responsibility for the operations and maintenance of the cemetery.

“I'm glad the VA took up our invitation to come out to Yellowstone County to see firsthand how important this cemetery is to the veterans in south central Montana,” Sen. Tester told the Outlook on Friday afternoon.

“Our country's commitment to our veterans begins the day they leave the military and continues until they reach their final resting place. It doesn't matter whether a veteran lives in an urban area or a rural area, they've earned every benefit and I'll always fight to make sure rural veterans aren't forgotten.”

Sen. Tester serves on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.