Over 80 people representing the state delegation, veterans’ offices and organizations, county commissioners and staff, press and the public were on hand to witness the official transfer of land from Fillmore County to the State Department of Veterans Affairs. In front, from left, are Rep. Greg Davids, former Sen. Sharon Erickson-Ropes and Sen. Jeremy Miller; In back are Doug Kelley from the Department of Administration; Commissioner Thomas Kaase, Commissioner Duane Bakke, Reggie Worlds, deputy commissioner of programs and services, Commissioner Chuck Amunrud, Commissioner Randy Dahl, David Swantek and cemetery director for Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs.   ANTON ADAMEK/BLUFF COUNTRY READER
Over 80 people representing the state delegation, veterans’ offices and organizations, county commissioners and staff, press and the public were on hand to witness the official transfer of land from Fillmore County to the State Department of Veterans Affairs. In front, from left, are Rep. Greg Davids, former Sen. Sharon Erickson-Ropes and Sen. Jeremy Miller; In back are Doug Kelley from the Department of Administration; Commissioner Thomas Kaase, Commissioner Duane Bakke, Reggie Worlds, deputy commissioner of programs and services, Commissioner Chuck Amunrud, Commissioner Randy Dahl, David Swantek and cemetery director for Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs. ANTON ADAMEK/BLUFF COUNTRY READER
"It's finally happened . . . it's finally happened," expressed Reggie Worlds about the transfer of county land to the state of Minnesota for the creation of a state veterans cemetery. As the deputy commissioner of program and services at the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, Worlds was in Preston last Tuesday to officially accept the deed from the Fillmore County Board of Commissioners. As the land was transferred, it was witnessed by about 80 people in the Fillmore County Courthouse.

"What made this happen are the people that don't have titles, which the cemetery will eventually serve," he shared, highlighting the deep significance of the event for area veterans and their families.

Just over four years ago, then state Sen. Sharon Erickson-Ropes had visited the county board and reported that the state was looking to create state veterans cemeteries that would address underserved regions in the state.

The only current Minnesota veterans cemetery is located near Little Falls in the central part of the state. A federal veterans cemetery is located at Fort Snelling.

The board had reacted with approval of the idea. "It started with a conversation," recalled Commissioner Chuck Amunrud at Tuesday's meeting.

That conversation led to visits from both state and federal veterans affairs authorities. A feasibility study was carried out in late 2009 on the "county farm" property behind the county's maintenance shop off of Highway 52.

In 2010, the board said it could possibly donate the land for the project, which might increase interest in the area.

Veterans organizations, townships and city governments had sent in 28 letters of support for the cemetery.

Legislative action in July of 2011 added language to include southeastern Minnesota, and specifically Fillmore County, as a priority location for a veterans cemetery.

Over the next couple years, further studies and zoning issues were resolved.

The State Legislature approved funding of $400,000 for cemetery planning in 2013. A federal grant worth $10 million was announced on Sept. 26, 2013, verifying there would indeed be a cemetery built in Preston.

Many members of local veterans organizations and auxiliaries were in attendance to see the proceedings of the meeting.

"It's hard to put into words," shared Preston VFW Post 6893 member Ron Laughlin. "A lot of us lost comrades in the service, so we deserve a place."

Laughlin drives veterans to the Veterans Administration Hospital and said it is a common topic on the minds of veterans.

Worlds shared it was fitting to see veterans be granted what is commonly their only wish.

"Vets are the least likely to come forward for help. They will lean on one another. Vets won't boast, but they want to have that flag on the coffin and a dignified burial, putting an end to a career of serving their country," he stated.

David Swantek, who is the cemetery director for the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, went through some of the technical aspects of the veterans cemetery.

"The facility will look monumental," he described. "It will be the finest veterans cemetery in the United States."

The county had known a veterans cemetery only required 40 usable acres, yet over the years, they continued to add acreage to the plot they would donate. When the deed was handed over, just over 169 acres had been given for the honor of many area veterans.

Swantek said the land would not be developed all at once; only the infrastructure for the first 10 years of the cemetery will be constructed. The cemetery is expecting to see well over 3,500 veterans and their family members buried there within the first 10 years. Swantek said that number would be low.

The state will continue to develop additional gravesites from four main plots of land. In all, it is estimated that over 40,000 veterans and their family members will be laid at the cemetery over the next 100 years.

The cemetery will have a massive limestone sign along Highway 52 to tell everyone passing by that "it's a special place." A public information center, committal service shelter, 80-foot flagpole, columbarium and extensive gravesite section will all be part of the cemetery.

Veterans will have the option to be buried in a casket, an above ground columbarium for cremation or a below ground cremation gravesite.

Swantek said Little Falls sees roughly 500 burials per year and up to seven per day. He added the cemetery would be integrating support from local veterans for honor guard duties, which will engage local veterans organizations even more.

"Be excited about this . . . as excited as you can get about a cemetery," he commented with amusement.

Preston VFW Commander David Starks said, "It's a great day. We have the ability now to honor a greater area of veterans with honor guards."

Worlds agreed saying, "This is an incredible day."

Giving an eloquent expression of gratitude for area veterans he continued, "The vets provide so much more than freedom, they allow the debates to continue. No matter what political party, we are vets. They protect this way of life and make sure it continues today, tomorrow and forever. We are here to commemorate and have brothers in arms know they will lie together. This community should be extremely proud for wanting to provide this opportunity, to allow service members to lie close to each other and family. Everybody in this room and across the country had benefitted from their service."

The commissioners allowed veterans services officers (VSO) from Olmsted, Dodge and Fillmore counties to express their thoughts on the occasion. Olmsted County VSO and former Fillmore County VSO Nathan Pike talked briefly about his time spent working with the commissioners on this project before he took his present job.

Dodge County VSO Todd Nelson shared he had worked at Arlington National Cemetery and that there was, "nothing more reverent than walking into a veterans cemetery. All of southern Minnesota should be proud."

Fillmore County VSO Jason Marquardt, who currently serves in the United States Army stated, "I know what every one of you feels like. This is where I want to be buried."

Legislators shared their thoughts on the historic moment. Former Sen. Erickson-Ropes shared how the process had been a great reflection on how willing to cooperate the local elected officials in the county had been.

"Washington, D.C., could take a lesson from the county. This is how you get things done," she shared, referring to the current government shutdown.

Sen. Jeremy Miller thanked Erickson-Ropes for "getting the ball rolling" on the cemetery. He shared how one of the first calls he received as an elected state senator had been from Fillmore County about the importance of the cemetery. "This is going to be huge!" he exclaimed while talking about economic impact to the area.

Rep. Greg Davids thanked the city of Spring Valley, which had been the county's backup site had the Preston site fallen through. Thanking each county commissioner he said, "We carried the gun, you gave us the ammunition."

With the transfer of the deed, the state will be able to move forward in awarding bids for contractors. The cemetery will take approximately 18 months to complete and a groundbreaking ceremony will most likely occur at the beginning of November.

Commissioner Duane Bakke noted the serendipitous availability of the land being used for the cemetery, telling stories of how the land had nearly been sold a couple of time 10 years ago.

Amunrud expressed deep gratitude for all the hard work put in by nearly every county department and noted how there had been no significant disagreements during the entire process.

"I'm giving up a pretty good fishing spot," he laughed.

Everyone else will be giving it up as well, but it was clear at the ceremony that all understood it was for a much greater purpose. Individuals', families', counties', a state's and a nation's appreciation for the service of veterans is much, much greater.