A coalition of Roswell-area veterans and city officials are working to start development on a 5-acre section at South Park Cemetery for an official veterans cemetery in the next 60-90 days. The future site is planned near this established area, beyond where other veterans, such as Iraq veteran Sgt. Christopher Sanders, are buried. Sanders, a former student of the New Mexico Military Institute, died from wounds suffered during combat. (Jill McLaughlin Photo)
A coalition of Roswell-area veterans, with the backing of city officials, are pushing forward with plans to break ground on a local, official veterans cemetery within the next two to three months.
The group hopes to start burying on at least 5 acres at an undeveloped area at South Park Cemetery, said coalition member Ron McKay. Plans will continue to develop at a meeting set for later this month.
“We’ll start at one end with an acre and move forward,” McKay. “That way, we can see how the funding and everything goes.”
Gov. Susana 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.
Martinez and Cabinet Secretary Timothy Hale met with Roswell veterans and leaders at a town hall Sept. 3 to discuss the initiative. The state Department of Veterans Services expects to identify up to 10, 3- to 5-acre sites.
The department would manage the new cemeteries, but the decision about where to locate the cemeteries would not be official for up to two years.
But the local group has decided to move forward with its established plans, in hopes of later recouping costs through the federal program.
“We want to at least start with part of it,” McKay said.
Last week, Mayor Del Jurney, McKay, Bert Eldridge and others invited Santa Fe National Cemetery Director Cliff Shields to Roswell to gather information about how to operate and build the site to federal specifications. Shields discussed details, including vault sizes, headstone details, crematorium standards, water-related concerns, engineering standards and ceremony practices. A separate entrance was discussed.
Eldridge said the planning and engineering is complete for the South Park addition. A fence was installed in anticipation of the new site.
South Park Cemetery was first established in the 1880s. Gravesites on the grounds hold the remains of veterans from the Civil War, Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, Vietnam, Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The 210-acre grounds were first set aside as a territorial land grant. Since then, 80 acres have been developed. Twenty more acres are planned for use.
He hoped recent developments and new motivation to build a permanent site for veterans in Roswell would continue to escalate.
“I think we can keep it going,” Eldridge said. “We just need to get the public more involved. We need to see if the public does or does not want it. Money is always a problem. We need donations.”
McKay said the process has been a struggle, but plans are moving along.
“This is the best thing that’s happened to us. We’re getting it done,” McKay said. “We want to start putting people in, in the next 60 to 90 days. That’s how hard we’re working on things.”
Jurney said the timing depends on how quickly plans will come together.
“If we can come to a design that meets the standards of a national cemetery, so the city can take on maintenance, that’s the best case for the city,” Jurney said. “There are still some very pivotal calls and points that need to come together. It’s going to happen.”