Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery moves closer to national designation

Billings Gazette

by Cindy Uken

Seven months after the nation's top veteran pledged to support making the Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery in Laurel a National Veterans Cemetery, the special designation is closer than ever.

President Barack Obama's current budget proposal allows the Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration to buy land from rural cemeteries in eight states, including Montana. Under the initiative, the newly purchased land would receive National Cemetery status. The VA would operate and maintain the property at an estimated $80,000 annually. The government would also incur capital equipment costs.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the state's only member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, has lobbied along with local veterans for the national designation since at least November 2007. Tester was responsible for bringing Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki to Montana in July 2011. In January, Tester wrote to Shinseki imploring him to push for funding in the budget.

"Montana veterans deserve the honor of a final resting place in a VA National Cemetery in our state," Tester said.

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 2008. The first burial, a Purple Heart veteran, was in December 2008.

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

"This is exciting," said Yellowstone County Commissioner Bill Kennedy who serves as a liaison to the cemetery board. "This is big."

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 being Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C.

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.

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

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.

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 neighboring states, South Dakota, has a national cemetery.