U.S. representatives Jon Runyan, back to camera, and Tim Walz to the right, listen to testimony in a Congressional field hearing held in the Fillmore County Board Room Monday afternoon, May 14. The first local statements were given by, from left, Steve O'Connor of Spring Valley, Lucille Barth of Preston, and Olmsted County (and former Fillmore County) Veterans Service Officer Nathan Pike. (Bluff Country Newspaper Group photo by Lisa Brainard)
U.S. representatives Jon Runyan, back to camera, and Tim Walz to the right, listen to testimony in a Congressional field hearing held in the Fillmore County Board Room Monday afternoon, May 14. The first local statements were given by, from left, Steve O'Connor of Spring Valley, Lucille Barth of Preston, and Olmsted County (and former Fillmore County) Veterans Service Officer Nathan Pike. (Bluff Country Newspaper Group photo by Lisa Brainard)
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first of three stories on this topic in this issue.

The local, county and state partnership process being facilitated to bring a proposed new state veterans cemetery to Preston, as well as the federal grants program that could further the cause, came under scrutiny Monday, May 14, during a bipartisan Veterans Affairs Subcommittee field hearing held in the Fillmore County Board Room at the courthouse in Preston.

Congressmen Tim Walz (D-MN) and Jon Runyan (R-NJ) headed the hearing. Runyan is the chair of the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs (DAMA) and Walz is a member of the subcommittee.

Following testimony by 10 individuals and follow-up questions by Runyan and Walz, it appears the steps being implemented are for the most part working well and also could serve as a model for other communities seeking a state veterans cemetery.

A concern over the federal requirement for the need to have 80,000 veterans in a set area before a cemetery could be built was alleviated since the Preston site would be a state - and not federal - veterans cemetery.

The number of veterans in a 50- to 75-mile radius including Iowa and Wisconsin was listed to be as many as 50,000 by those testifying. Speaking from the National Cemetery Administration/U.S. Depart. of Veterans Affairs, Glenn Powers, Deputy Under Secretary for Field Programs, and Joshua de Leon, Director of Veterans Cemetery Grants Service, both said the local numbers were good for the veterans cemetery.

Testimony from Fillmore County Commissioner Chuck Amunrud, District 31 Senator Jeremy Miller (R-Winona), Cemetery Director David Swantek of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs and others affirmed the process of local, county and state partnership as working very well.

Field hearing begins

A plaque bearing the U.S. Congressional seal on it placed behind the desk where the Fillmore County commissioners normally sit, new nameplates and a transcriptionist recording comments all signaled the importance of the field hearing before a packed room.

Walz, a 24-year veteran of the Army National Guard, stated, "After the tremendous sacrifices made by our nations veterans, our brave warriors deserve a final resting place that will both honor their memory and give them peace of mind in knowing they will be close to family and loved ones. Today, we heard from local, state, and federal officials who are all working together with our veterans to provide a final resting place for our nation's heroes.

He also thanked Chairman Runyan for attending in order to examine how the federal veterans cemetery grants program can help communities pay tribute to the sacrifices made by the veterans.

Runyan stated, "Though our economy is still in the midst of a fragile recovery, it is important to fund priority programs for veterans and honor their service. Public partnerships, such as the Veterans Cemetery Grants Program, are great ways to protect the final resting place of our nation's veterans.

"I would like to thank Congressman Walz for inviting me to Minnesota and hosting this hearing, for his personal military service, and his advocacy for veterans both here in his home state and across the country. He is a key member of the House Veterans Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee and I look forward to continuing this work with him to ensure our vets receive the benefits they have more than earned in service."

Tops new cemetery list

The southeastern Minnesota site currently sits atop the national list of proposals for new veterans cemetery proposals. Construction of the new cemetery would not only provide a final resting place for the over 40,000 veterans in southeast Minnesota, its construction would also create jobs in the local economy.

Minnesota currently has only one state veterans cemetery, which is located in Little Falls - nearly 250 miles away from the over 40,000 veterans who call southeast Minnesota home. Fort Snelling National Cemetery is located in Twin Cities, 120 miles away.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Veterans Cemetery Grants Program was established in 1978 to complement VA's National Cemetery Administration.  The program assists states, territories and federally recognized tribal governments in providing gravesites for veterans in those areas where VA's national cemeteries cannot fully satisfy their burial needs.

Grants may be used only for the purpose of establishing, expanding or improving veterans cemeteries that are owned and operated by a state, federally recognized tribal government, or U.S. territory. Aid can be granted only to states, federally recognized tribal government, or U.S. territories. VA cannot provide grants to private organizations, counties, cities or other government agencies.

Panelists testifying

The panelists providing testimony and answering questions at the hearing were Steve O'Connor of Spring Valley, Past State Commander, Veterans of Foreign Wars; Lucinda Barth, Sergeant, Minnesota Army National Guard Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operations Enduring Freedom; Nathan Pike, County Veteran Service Officer Olmsted County formerly in the same position in Fillmore County; Chuck Amunrud, Fillmore County commissioner; Karen Brown, Fillmore County coordinator; Jon Martin, Fillmore County Solid Waste administrator; Senator Jeremy Miller of the Minnesota Legislature; David Swantek, Cemetery Director, Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs; and Glenn Powers, Deputy Under Secretary for Field Programs, National Cemetery Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and accompanied by Joshua de Leon, Director of Veterans Cemetery Grants Service, National Cemetery Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Dist. 31B Rep. Greg Davids (R - Preston), who could not be present at the hearing due to his daughter's graduation from college in Texas, submitted written testimony.