PUBLISHERS NOTEBOOK: Journey nearly complete
on local veterans cemetery
Wednesday, November 13, 2013 7:41 AM
Fillmore County Commissioner Chuck Amunrud delivered some parting words during the groundbreaking of the new state veterans ceremony Friday just outside of Preston. "This whole thing started with a conversation and it became a journey," the veteran told the crowd assembled in the November cold for this landmark event.
The conversation started when Fillmore County officials heard that the state was looking at putting in another state veterans cemetery in the northeast or southeast. The journey, which was neither short nor easy, will end with the opening of a cemetery for area veterans in 2015 on 170 acres of scenic land just outside Preston.
"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," he explained.
The significance to veterans is obvious. There is a national campaign to provide burial for veterans within 75 miles of their homes. The other state cemetery in Minnesota is in Little Falls, more than 200 miles away, while a national VA cemetery, Fort Snelling National Cemetery, is more than 100 miles away.
Why is this important? Steve O'Connor of Spring Valley, past state commander, Veterans of Foreign Wars, told representatives at a hearing last year: "As a veteran, I am extremely pleased there will be a cemetery where I can be interred with my comrades. Although there will be comrades from many different wars, from many different eras, we all share an experience that can never be explained to the protected and doesn't need to be explained to the warrior. It is fitting that there should be a hallowed place designated for our eternal rest."
The significance to the public, or the "protected," is also obvious. The cemetery will provide jobs to local people and bring visitors to the area.
Also significant is how all those people Amunrud mentioned came together for the benefit of veterans. It shows how government, in the spirit of bipartisanship with cooperation from local residents, can produce results that make us proud.
Fillmore County officials got the ball rolling by agreeing to donate land worth more than $500,000. Local veterans connected county officials with state veterans groups that backed the project. They also got the support of every city and township in the county.
Mobilizing veterans and local officials isn't daunting as these groups often work together on important projects that benefit the area. Getting the support from federal and state officials, especially of different party affiliation, was the tricky part.
However, two congressmen - Tim Walz (D-Minn.) and Jon Runyan (R-N.J.) along with several federal officials traveled from Washington, D.C., in May 2012 hearing to hold a field hearing of the Veterans Affairs Subcommittee in the Fillmore County courthouse in Preston. That is the hearing in which O'Connor gave his testimony.
One federal official at the hearing called Fillmore County and the local people backing the project a "motivated local partner." That motivation made the Preston site stand above others that could have been considered and later propelled it through the state Legislature and eventually put it on top of the list of proposed sites on a national list.
State politicians of both parties stood behind the project. Former DFL state senator Sharon Erickson Ropes, a veteran from Winona, was instrumental in moving that initial conversation cited by Amunrud forward and her replacement, State Sen. Jeremy Miller (R-Winona), along with State Rep. Greg Davids (R-Preston) followed up.
"This project in southeastern Minnesota is an excellent example of how government can and should work," said Miller in a statement after the groundbreaking. "Together with local officials in Fillmore County, state and federal leaders and agencies, we have ensured that our state's veterans will be honored. I am incredibly proud of the work our local officials in Fillmore County have done to make this a reality. It is truly a great day for our state's veterans and their families."
Davids, who also attended the groundbreaking, echoed Miller's remarks. "This is such an important landmark for southeastern Minnesota," Davids said. "All of us look forward to its completion so we can pay our respects to the men and women who put their lives on hold to fight for our freedoms."
A metro area legislator from the other party also took time to attend the groundbreaking. Rep. Rick Hansen (DFL-South St. Paul) said "This is an important day for veterans throughout the state. As a metro legislator, I am happy to be supporting this effort because we are all part of one Minnesota and we must strive to give veterans across our state the honor they deserve."
The state Legislature authorized operational funding for the cemetery this past session, but federal officials had to come through as well to complete the journey. Earlier this fall, the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs received official approval and a $10 million grant from the Federal Cemetery Administration to cover the entire cost of the new cemetery.
"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," said Steven L. Muro, under secretary of memorial affairs for the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, at the groundbreaking ceremony.
Veterans Day is behind us, but this is a lasting memorial to our veterans - one that not only brings those "warriors" together in "eternal rest," as O'Connor said, but also provides lessons on the value of cooperating with people unlike ourselves on a shared vision, the necessity of taking action to complete a journey and the significance of honoring those who protect us.
"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," added Muro. "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."