State limits Ft. Stanton burials

November 19, 2010 • Local News

Local veterans are fuming over a recent ruling that would halt military burials at a historic Merchant Marine cemetery just 15 minutes northeast [auth] of Ruidoso. Fort Stanton Cemetery in Lincoln County has long served as an active public veterans cemetery, but now only deceased Merchant Marines and their spouses and employees and patients of the now closed Fort Stanton Hospital will be allowed to rest there.

“This cemetery has been interring veterans since after the First World War, and now all of a sudden they’re saying this is not a veterans cemetery,” Gene Kurtz, commander of NM American Legion Post 79 in Ruidoso Downs, said. “The words that I would like to use are not necessarily social, but I am irritated. Most of the veterans in the area are irritated.”

The Regents Board, the governing body of the Museum of New Mexico state monuments, a division of the Department of Cultural Affairs, passed the motion Nov. 10 to limit burials.

“The DCA is not in the cemetery business,” Stuart Ashman, secretary of the Department of Cultural Affairs, said in a phone interview, noting he supported the board’s decision. “That’s not one of our legislative or mandated duties.”

A burial moratorium has been in place since February 2008, though burials were still permitted on a case-to-case basis. Now, the moratorium will be more strictly enforced, according to the Regents Board and the DCA.

The DCA has had authority over the cemetery since September 2008 when Gov. Bill Richardson decreed the 240-acre property to be a living history venue as part of the Fort Stanton State Monument. Previously, the cemetery was under the authority of the Department of General Services.

“The board did limit burials to only those individuals who fall within the criteria established by the document creating the cemetery,” Karen Durkovich, president of the Regents Board, told The Ruidoso News. “In so doing we are continuing a moratorium already in existence established by the General Services Department of the state of New Mexico.”

Still, veterans across the state are decrying the action as an insult to servicemen and women who have sacrificed for their country.

“I think its absolutely shameful,” Bill Guthrie, district commander of NM American Legion District 5 Post 108 in Tularosa, said. “It’s a cemetery of historical significance, and I’m kind of astounded that they made that decision.”

Veteran Larry Holt, of Capitan, a longtime volunteer coordinator at the cemetery who served as a captain in the U.S. Army Reserves during Vietnam, criticized the board for making what he believes is a misinformed decision.

“The board failed to investigate and was not aware of the facts of how burials have been handled at the cemetery for the last three decades,” Holt said. “Their decision was based on a lack of information.”

Holt has since made appeals to various local and state politicians to reverse the motion and let the cemetery remain open for all veterans and their dependents. According to him, there are still four to six acres of land available for use.

“We’re fighting to allow military veterans of this great nation to be buried at the Fort Stanton cemetery,” Holt declared. “We’ll wait until a new administration that is more favorable to veterans comes into power.”

Some politicians, like Rep.-elect Steve Pearce, R- N.M., stand staunchly behind the veterans and oppose the action.

“Southern New Mexico needs a place to recognize our veterans who have served, and who have passed,” Pearce wrote in an e-mail to the RDR. “One of my first actions after being sworn in will be to seek answers for the change of policy of the governing board.”

Other local officials, like Lincoln County Manager Tom Stewart, say they feel ambivalent about the issue.

“A lot of veterans in the area have been counting on being buried there, and some people already have family members there,” Stewart said in a phone interview, adding that he was “very dismayed.”

But he also noted that he sympathizes with the reasoning behind the board’s decision.

“They feel they need to restore the historical context of the facility,” Stewart said. “It’s kind of interesting dilemma.”

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