Local, regional and state dignitaries scoop shovels of sand in a ceremonial groundbreaking ceremony for the state veterans cemetery last Friday morning.
Local, regional and state dignitaries scoop shovels of sand in a ceremonial groundbreaking ceremony for the state veterans cemetery last Friday morning.
The Minnesota Department of Veteran Affairs (MDVA) held a groundbreaking ceremony at the site of the new state veterans cemetery that is due to open in 2015 near Preston. The 169-acre site was donated by Fillmore County.

With a total projected budget of $10.1 million and $8.2 million in construction costs, the facility will begin with the development of 28 acres. Phase 1 includes construction of a main entrance, administration building, maintenance facility, cortege assembly area, roads, committal shelter, cremation burial areas, columbarium, pre-placed crypts and associated landscaping.

There is currently only one other state veterans cemetery in Minnesota, located in Little Falls. That facility is nearly 200 miles from Preston. The nearest VA national cemetery is in Fort Snelling, approximately 120 miles away.

Design work has been conducted by Stantec, a St. Paul engineering firm. The construction grant has been awarded to Olympic Builders General Contractors, Inc.

David Swantek, who serves as director of the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery and Commissioner of the MDVA, began the program.

"From Lincoln's time to today, our nation has seen fit to honor those Americans who willingly gave their all, (by) a fulfillment of President Lincoln's promise to 'care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan' by serving and honoring the men and women who are American veterans and service members," he said. "Today this site will become an extension of that promise, made 151 years ago."

MDVA Commissioner Larry Shellito said, "I want to thank the leadership of Fillmore County and all the veteran services organizations that are here. Over the last three years as I have watched this process work, it's been that leadership and that tenacity of this area, as well as probably one of the most beautiful sites in the State of Minnesota, that has brought this to fruition.

"What's most important about an event like this is, the vast majority of the 380,000 veterans in the State of Minnesota, many of whom don't get many benefits through their lifetime, ask basically for two things . . . The flag on their coffin and a marker on their grave."

Steven L. Muro, Under Secretary Memorial Affairs (United States Department of Veterans Affairs) said, "I want you to remember one thing as this cemetery grows. Remember that those names on the headstones gave their tomorrows so that we could have our todays."

Muro cited the partnership between federal, state and county that enabled the cemetery to be built. "It's amazing that we could all get together to do what is right to serve those veterans who wore the uniform, who raised their right hand and took the oath, their families, their survivors," he said. "We respect them, we owe them our gratitude and our many thanks for what they have given us, the right to be here. The right to choose, and the right to serve them now.

"As time goes on, please bring your children and grandchildren here so that they can see that freedom is not free. As this garden of stones blooms, remember those that gave their all."

Congressman Tim Walz (D-MN) thanked county commissioners, stating, "They have been nothing short of spectacular. They chose to make this, and it will be the best veterans cemetery in the United States because of their vision."

Walz also cited state representatives and state senators for partnering with county officials.

"The greatest gift our veterans give us is that gift of self-governance," he reminded attendees. "It's up to us to make it happen. If you want to see the best this nation has to offer, the collaboration that happened from the local, state, federal, public, private, to make this cemetery a reality, is the best we have to offer, and no one in this world does it better."

Fillmore County Commissioner Chuck Amunrud delivered some parting words. After thanking local volunteers, he said, "This is a momentous occasion. This whole thing started with a conversation and it became a journey," he said. "We have been successful, and it's only because of all the input and all the support from the public, from our veterans' organizations, from the auxiliaries, our state reps, our federal reps, our state agencies, our county agencies. Every county agency that we have is somehow involved with this."

He continued, "Now as we turn this land over to you veterans, you are now going to have a responsibility. It will be you folks that will provide the color guard."

Amunrud concluded by reading a short poem by 19th century poet Christina Rossetti entitled "Uphill."

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?

Yes, to the very end.

Will the day's journey take the whole long day?

From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?

A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.

May not the darkness hide it from my face?

You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?

Those who have gone before.

Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?

They will not keep you standing at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?

Of labour you shall find the sum.

Will there be beds for me and all who seek?

Yea, beds for all who come.