Veterans cemetery promise, hope fulfilled

Billings Gazette

In November 2006, more than 35,000 Yellowstone County people voted for a tax levy to build and maintain a county veterans cemetery.

There was no state funding available. There was no federal funding available, and the prospect of the federal government paying for another veterans cemetery in Montana was slim.

However, the Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery was designed to meet exacting national cemetery standards. The hope was that one day it would become a national burial ground for American heroes.

On Veterans Day 2008, the cemetery was dedicated north of Laurel on Buffalo Trail. Since then, more than 80 veterans and spouses have been interred at this beautifully, fenced and landscaped lawn on the edge of rolling prairie.

Meanwhile, cemetery supporters kept the hope for national status alive by talking to Montana’s congressional delegation.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, brought VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to Billings last summer and introduced him to Yellowstone County veterans who told him why a national cemetery is needed in Montana’s most populous county. It can be a hardship for families and friends to journey to services or visit graves in veterans cemeteries 100, 200 or 300 miles from home. While the Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery provides plots, headstones and ongoing maintenance free of charge, it is not able to cover some burial costs that national cemeteries can cover to lessen the financial burden on families.

Over the past year, a new idea developed for making the Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery a national shrine: To improve services to rural veterans, the VA would work with local cemeteries to create national veterans cemeteries. Shinseki and President Barack Obama included the plan in the VA’s budget.

As a result, last week, the VA announced that it will designate the Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery as a national cemetery.

‘Innovative partnership’

“Through an innovative partnership with existing cemeteries, we will be able to ensure burial for veterans in more locations that meet the high standards of national shrines,” Shinseki said.

Under this VA rural initiative, the Yellowstone County cemetery will be one of eight around the nation designated as National Veterans Burial Grounds.

In this “innovative partnership,” Yellowstone County is expected to pay off the debt it incurred for developing the first phase of the cemetery, a debt that will be repaid with the voted levy. However, the VA will take over ongoing expenses and provide a higher level of burial benefits to veterans.

“Our veterans deserve a resting place close to their families that allows all of America to celebrate their service,” Tester said last week.

All members of Montana’s congressional delegation have been supportive of the county cemetery. Tester deserves special recognition for pressing the national designation in meetings, letters and legislation over two presidential administrations — until the deal was done.

However, the county cemetery story stretches back longer than Tester has been in the U.S. Senate. For a decade, Yellowstone County Commissioner Bill Kennedy has promoted the cemetery tirelessly at home, in Helena where two laws had to be changed to authorize the county to fund and build the cemetery, and in Washington where he told Yellowstone County’s story to the VA. Commissioners Jim Reno and John Ostlund also are strong cemetery proponents.

14,370 U.S. veterans

This grass-roots movement started with the Yellowstone County United Veterans Council. Veterans themselves sought a fitting final resting place for their brothers and sisters in arms. Gene McDonald and Burt Gigoux, who then served as commander and vice commander of the council, helped lead the low-key, but successful 2006 levy campaign. The United Veterans Council leadership has continued to support the cemetery and led private fundraising efforts to significantly enhance the facilities built with tax dollars. The cemetery campaign brought various local veterans organizations together to work for a common, noble purpose.

Many of Yellowstone County’s estimated 14,370 veterans and many of their neighbors have volunteered their time and donated their money to make the cemetery what it is today.

In November 2006, Yellowstone County voters made a permanent commitment to honor U.S. military veterans. With no federal or state aid forthcoming, voters approved a permanent 1-mill levy. The promise to voters was that the cemetery would be built to national standards. The hope was one day it would be a national cemetery.

Thanks to thousands of people in Yellowstone County and a few in Washington, D.C., both the promise and the hope have been fulfilled.