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Congressional Veterans Affairs subcommittee hearing in Preston



Posted in Preston Features

Subcommittee Chairman Jon Runyan, Fillmore County Commissioner Chuck Amunrud, and Congressman Tim Walz conducted a hearing on May 14 in the Fillmore County Board room to discuss the possibilities of establishing a new state run veterans cemetary in Preston. Photo by Karen Reisner

Rep. Jon Runyan (R-NJ), chairman of the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs and Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN), a member of the subcommittee, conducted a hearing on May 14 in the Fillmore County Board room. They discussed the process to establish new state run veterans cemeteries and the federal veterans cemetery grant program. Walz maintained veterans “deserve a final resting place that will both honor their memory and give them peace of mind in knowing they will be close to family and loved ones.”

The room was overflowing with elected officials, staff personnel, veterans, and press. The congressmen were interested in how the process went forward with the proposal for a State Veterans Cemetery in Fillmore County.

The Fillmore County Board had expressed its willingness to donate 155 acres of the county farm in early 2010. County Coordinator Karen Brown testified that all “veteran service groups and municipalities in the county were contacted and asked about their opinions about the cemetery.” There are thirty resolutions of support on file. There was community support to donate the land for a veterans cemetery. She noted that a report presented to the county board in 2010 produced by David Swantek, director of the State Veterans Cemetery in Little Falls, found the veteran population in southeast Minnesota to be underserved.

Brown listed the events that have and will have to take place to make the proposed cemetery possible including the land donation, the support from local legislators to pass legislation to cover initial costs to evaluate the site, the willingness of state agencies to work together, the willingness of the federal government to provide grant funding to construct the cemetery, and the state being willing to fund the operation and maintenance of the cemetery.

After Brown and Amunrud testified, Walz asked how to start the process for state cemeteries in other areas. Amunrud insisted it is essential for the community to make an investment. He said the process has been fair and we have been kept informed.

Past State Commander of VFW Stephen O’Connor said the construction of the proposed cemetery has been made possible with the combined efforts of the Fillmore County commissioners, local veteran’s organizations, the state legislature, the Minnesota Department of Veteran Affairs and local communities. The ability of these entities to work together has made the cemetery possible. O’Connor felt there is no greater honor than to be laid to rest along side one’s comrades.

Sergeant Lucinda Barth explained how the location of the cemetery near Preston would provide a resting place for veterans in Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin that would be a reasonable distance from their loved ones. She said she has seen some beautiful places around the world, but none compare to the beauty right here in Fillmore County. She believes this location is not only beautiful, but serene and would allow “veterans’ families to feel that their loved one is at peace.”

Olmsted VSO (formerly Fillmore VSO) Nathan Pike noted the economic stimulus the construction of the cemetery would provide. There would be as many as a dozen permanent jobs with the cemetery. Visitors to the cemetery would help boost the local economy while in the area. He maintained the VA is responsible for the care of veterans and their families from “discharge to death.” The proposed cemetery will be well suited for a closer to home final resting place for area veterans.

Runyan recognized the collaborative effort to get the proposal this far including everyone from state legislators and state VA to county commissioners and local citizens. Everyone wants to see this happen. Amunrud said the people sitting in this room are a testament to the collaborative efforts.

Fillmore County Solid Waste Administrator Jon Martin said people have hunted and hiked on this county-owned property over the years. This past fall it was closed to hunting while the area was being checked out for suitability by workers doing soil borings, wetland surveying, and conducting an artifact discovery process. He said people were understanding and supportive when they were informed of the reason for the closing.

David Swantek, Cemetery Director at Little Falls, explained that President Abraham Lincoln made a promise that those who fought would not be forgotten 150 years ago. The veteran cemeteries are a reminder of the cost of “freedom and democracy.” In 1999 the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) was authorized by Congress to provide up to 100 percent of construction costs to expand or improve State Veterans Cemeteries.

Swantek reported that a significant site suitability assessment had been completed and the proposed property seems to meet the suitability requirements for a State Veterans Cemetery. He noted other sites, for example at Duluth, may look beautiful, but won’t work. The site has to be suitable below ground as well. Swantek stated, “Fillmore County offered up to as close to a perfect cemetery site as possible.” State Senator Jeremy Miller said the county made it easy for them because they were willing to donate the land.

Walz said the process worked and emphasized the importance of community involvement and veteran population centers. All levels of government are working together including local, state and federal to make the proposal for the state veterans cemetery a reality.

NCA

Glenn Powers, National Cemetery Administration, explained their mission is to provide eligible veterans, spouses and dependents places for burial and memorialization. The VA strives to have a veterans cemetery burial option within 75 miles of a veteran’s home. He said the proposed cemetery in Fillmore County would meet a critical need. The Veterans Cemetery Grants Program (VCGP) was established by Congress in 1978, which may fund up to 100 percent of the cost to expand, improve or establish Veterans Cemeteries. If all goes well in the grant process, the VCGP will pay the millions of dollars to construct the cemetery in Fillmore County. The federal grant could be awarded in 2013, after which construction could start.

The state of Minnesota has four grant applications ranked on the priority list. One is for the expansion of the Little Falls cemetery. Three are for establishment of new Veterans Cemeteries including southeast (Fillmore County), Redwood County, and Duluth (St. Louis County). Land has not been acquired in either Redwood County or Duluth. The proposed cemetery in Fillmore County would provide for 50,000 unserved veterans in southeast Minnesota, northern Iowa, and western Wisconsin.

Joshua de Leon, National Cemetery Administration, said, “We’d love to see this happen.” He said the proposal ranks number 11 out of 104 on the list. It ranks first in unserved veteran populations on the list for new constructions.

Runyan asked if the proposal is automatically approved if it meets all the criteria. Leon said it has passed the May 15 deadline for 2012, and there is still construction planning to do; it has to go out for bid and complete all the required process steps. He added it is going par for the course for new establishment projects, saying we want these projects to go through. The Fillmore County application will be on the 2013 Priority List. Once the VA approves the grant award, construction can begin.

Walz asked if the federal government provides adequate resources. Leon noted they have been able to fund most priority projects. Congress appropriates annually to the VCGP.

Powers noted the criteria does place an emphasis on population to be served. He added there is a large concentration here with over 50,000 veterans.

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