Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=84535
Story Retrieval Date: 5/24/2013 3:57:15 AM CST
WASHINGTON -- As the United States' 125 national cemeteries fill up with veterans from past wars, getting new cemeteries is becoming a competitive process.
Coloradoans have pushed for a site in the veteran-rich southern part of the state for a decade, but National Cemetery Administration officials say Colorado isn’t even on the priority list.
Although the state will need a new cemetery in the next 12 years, it isn’t likely to be where southern Colorado veterans want it, according to the Veterans Affairs undersecretary for memorial affairs.
Colorado already has two national cemeteries. However, one is small and rural, and the larger one, in Denver, is separated from southern Colorado by traffic and an often icy hill that peaks more than 8,000 feet above sea level.
“It’s kind of a natural barrier that marks the distinction between southern and northern Colorado,” said retired two-star Gen. Bentley Rayburn, part of a citizens group pushing for a new cemetery. “Not every 75 miles is created equal.”
Veterans Affairs criteria says there cannot be two national cemeteries within 75 miles of each other, and downtown Colorado Springs is 67.5 miles from Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver, according to Yahoo! Maps.
Colorado Springs, one of the 50 largest cities in the U.S., is home to about 400,000 people, and the region has five military bases, including the Air Force Academy and the Army’s expanding Fort Carson. About one in five Colorado Springs residents are veterans, according to the VA.
Veterans in the area formed the Pikes Peak Veterans Cemetery Committee in the 1990s, but it fizzled out around 2001 without progress. After looking into the possibility of a state cemetery and deciding there wasn’t enough money for it, Rayburn said, the group pursued a national cemetery again.
Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., introduced a bill to go over the VA’s head and establish a cemetery near Colorado Springs. The legislation made it through the House in May 2007 but is stuck in the Senate.
“We continue to converse and correspond with the VA, but we continue to get kind of canned responses,” Rayburn said. “We weren’t getting anywhere with working through the bureaucracy.”
The bureaucracy, however, has perfectly good reasons to hold off, said William Tuerk, the VA undersecretary for memorial affairs.
“I’d love to have a cemetery within five miles of every veteran, but we just can’t do that,” Tuerk said.
It’s a busy time for the National Cemetery Administration.
The U.S. is just past the peak in World War II veterans’deaths, at the height of Korean War deaths and on the upslope of Vietnam War deaths, Tuerk said. The VA estimates about 600,000 veterans will die each year through 2018, and the cemetery agency’s budget has steadily risen from $95 million in 2000 to $156 million in 2007.
“The National Cemetery Administration is in the midst of its largest expansion since the Civil War,” administration spokesman Michael Nacincik said.
There are 12 cemeteries that the VA expects to fill up before Denver’s 214-acre Fort Logan reaches capacity around 2020, but, of those, Fort Logan serves the largest veteran population.
The problem is that there are areas such as Omaha, Neb., and Buffalo, N.Y., that don’t have any national cemeteries near them. About one in five veterans did not live within 75 miles of a national cemetery in 2007, according to the VA.
Tuerk expects this spring to receive the first draft of an independent study that will analyze how many new national cemeteries will be needed in the immediate future.
Until then, the cemetery administration’s 2009 budget requests money and special permission to start shopping for land to expand cemetery space in Colorado, Oregon and Puerto Rico. Tuerk said it makes sense to put the Colorado cemetery between Denver and Colorado Springs as a compromise, but that still leaves Colorado Springs on the other side of that hill, sitting just to its north.
Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., said that’s not what his constituents want.
The veterans and widows in southern Colorado desire their own cemetery, not a slightly closer replacement for northern Colorado’s existing site, he said. They feel their situation as a major city full of veterans requires special consideration, he said.
“I would hope that long before Fort Logan fills to capacity, we would have a southern Colorado site,” Lamborn said.