Grassroots effort built final home for heroes – Billings Gazette

Billings Gazette
Date: 05/28/12

At noon today, Yellowstone County people and some guests will gather at the Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery north of Laurel. This place between the edge of Laurel and the Montana prairie is unique.

This is a cemetery built to national veterans cemetery standards by and paid for by local veterans and their neighbors in Billings, Laurel and elsewhere in Yellowstone County. The story starts nearly a decade ago when veterans and family members asked why the county that is home to Montana’s largest veteran population doesn’t have a veteran cemetery open to all veterans. Burt Gigoux, who has served as commander of the Yellowstone County United Veterans Council and also as commander of the Marine Corps League, began working with County Commissioner Bill Kennedy. Volunteers, including Gigoux, formed a cemetery steering committee. The cemetery was a common purpose that united members of veterans organizations across the county, Gigoux said.

“All this gets to be a group effort. That cemetery brought these groups together.”

Representing the Yellowstone County Commission, Kennedy went to two sessions of the Montana Legislature to get laws changed to allow the county to create and operate the veterans cemetery.

Although lawmakers helped by passing the needed legislation, the state did not provide any operating funds as it does for the other three veterans cemeteries in Helena, Miles City and Missoula.

Yellowstone County veterans cemetery supporters set their sights higher. The cemetery was designed to meet the same national standards as Arlington. The key to turning plans into action was the approval from Yellowstone County voters, who voted to tax themselves to help fund the project.

Kennedy credits veterans and family members for the overwhelmingly favorable vote.

“I think they passed it,” he said. “The went out and spoke to groups, telling them it would have been easier to bury their family member in Billings.”

The voter-approved county levy allowed the county to issue $1.5 million in bonds to build the first phase of the cemetery on 15 acres. Costs included irrigation, sod and moving roads.

“Everything was put to national standards from the flag poles to the fencing,” Kennedy said.

Private donations covered the addition of restrooms and a warming room. An Eagle Scout project installed a gravel walking path. Other donors have sponsored other cemetery features.

The Veterans Cemetery Board members do a lot more than attend meetings. Last week several were at the cemetery sprucing it up for today’s crowd. The volunteer board members previously have done jobs such as pouring concrete for sidewalks and bench pads.

About 80 veterans and spouses have been interred since the cemetery opened in November 2008. Lately, one or two a week have been scheduled.

The cemetery has met the goals the veterans and steering committee set, except for one: national designation.

That designation is included in the fiscal 2013 Department of Veterans Affairs budget proposal President Barack Obama sent to Congress. The budget proposes that the federal government purchase land for eight veterans cemeteries, including the Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery.

National designation would mean that the federal government rather than the county would pay for the cemetery operation. National designation also would save families the cost of grave opening and closing, costs which the county now must pass along.

The Yellowstone County Commission has pledged to continue paying off the cemetery bonds if it becomes a national operation. All other costs would be borne by the VA. The voted levy of about $225,000 annually would pay off the bonds, Kennedy said.

“Designation as a national cemetery would cost the VA very little but it would send the right message to these veterans and their families that our nation is truly appreciative of the sacrifices they have made on our behalf,” Sen. Jon Tester wrote to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in January. “These folks simply seek a dignified final resting place that is relatively close to their homes and to their families.”

All three members of Montana’s delegation — Tester, Sen. Max Baucus and Rep. Denny Rehberg support the Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery. Tester, as a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, has promoted the national designation throughout his Senate tenure, bringing two VA secretaries to Billings and introducing them to veterans the cemetery would serve.

The Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery should become a national veterans cemetery as the next step in a project with strong grass roots support. Yet it is fitting today to recognize how successful this idea has been already. Yellowstone County is honoring U.S. veterans and their families. On Memorial Day, we salute all the veterans, other volunteers and elected leaders who had a hand in turning this patch of prairie into a final resting place for American heroes.

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