Record Staff Writer
Regional leaders and veterans heard from Gov. Susana Martinez and Cabinet Secretary Timothy Hale Wednesday about the possibility of creating a local veterans cemetery.
Martinez announced, in July, the State Veterans’ Cemetery Initiative to establish cemeteries for the state’s rural-area veterans. New Mexico currently only has three federal veterans cemeteries, located in Santa Fe, Ft. Bayard and Ft. Bliss.
In July, the state Department of Veterans’ Services launched a plan to begin hosting meetings with mayors through September,as well as meetings with community and county commissions through November.
“Too many of our veterans do not have access to cemeteries in our state,” Martinez said. “We can’t wait any longer.”
Wednesday’s meeting, held at the American Legion Post 28, allowed several veterans and local leaders to hear details of the plan and voice their ideas.
“We’ve all got to work together within the state,” Hale said.
Hale said the department would look at several locations throughout the state in the next year.
“This is going to take a little bit of time,” Hale said. “We need to put cemeteries in the right places.”
The department plans to develop applications for three to four rural locations with the hope of identifying up to 10 sites that are 3 to 5 acres. The department would manage the new cemeteries. Any funding, which the state Legislature would be required to appropriate, would be contingent on the community being able to secure the land needed.
The cemeteries would also need to meet Veterans Administration development standards and conditions.
A 3-acre site, which would accommodate 100 burial plots, to hold one veteran and his or her spouse, is estimated to cost a total of $1.3 million, according to the NMDVS.
The state selection process would include looking at the distances from current national cemeteries, veteran populations, community support, and suitable and available land, Hale said.
“A Roswell cemetery, does it make sense? Absolutely,” Hale said. “We are going to have some tough choices to make as we go around the state.”
Some 78,000 veterans live within 75 miles of the existing veterans cemeteries. An estimated 131,000 veterans and eligible family members live outside the 75-mile range. Chaves County has the eighth-largest veterans population, with 5,300 veterans living in the county.
A Roswell resident, who faces burying a veteran, would need to drive to the Santa Fe National Cemetery. The distance is 190 miles, and an estimated three-hours drive time one way. Ft. Bliss is four hours away. Ft. Bayard is more than five hours away.
Some community members asked if they could go ahead and open a veterans cemetery with private land and later convert it to the federal cemetery, instead of waiting years for the VA to make a decision.
Harry McGraw said he would like to take a small piece of land at an existing cemetery and start the process immediately. He asked if the burials were done to VA guidelines, if the cemetery could later be converted to the federal cemetery.
“We want to sit down and discuss this,” he told Hale.
Mayor Del Journey also asked whether the city and veterans could proceed with private money and follow federal guidelines.
“The VA can come in, but it has to be to the specifications,” Hale said.