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Burial Grounds

news1The state moves forward with funding for new veterans cemetery at Fort Ord

For the tens of thousands of veterans who have lived and passed away in recent years in the Monterey Bay Area, as well as their families, the nearest national veterans cemetery is almost a two-hour drive away in the San Joaquin Valley.

Some veterans' families, dedicated to burying their loved one in a state or national cemetery but reluctant to inter them in a place so far from home, have kept cremated remains and are waiting for a new veterans cemetery to open that won't require so much travel, says Arnold Leff, commander for the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post in Santa Cruz.

State leaders took a big step toward just that last week, on Thursday, Oct. 10, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 232, acquiring $1 million for the long-planned Central Coast State Veterans Cemetery. It will be constructed on 78 acres of land on the old Fort Ord military base that are currently covered with scrub oaks and brush.

Now that the governor has signed the bill, which was authored by Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel), an additional $1 million will be contributed to the project fund by an undisclosed, “non-local” source, says Mayor of Carmel Jason Burnett, a key proponent of the veterans cemetery.

The cemetery will serve the approximate 100,000 veterans and their families living in five surrounding counties: Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Benito, Santa Clara, and San Luis Obispo.

The state will build and operate the Central Coast State Veterans Cemetery, but all construction expenses on the state level will be reimbursed.

On Oct. 1, Congressman Sam Farr secured federal government funds in the amount of $6.7 million, covering the bulk of the expenses.

With the $2 million from the state and unknown private donor, plus the federal funding. There was more than $600,000 left to be raised on the local level.

Burnett explains that the state would not accept the federal grant unless they raised the final portion on the local level with an Oct. 15 deadline.

Burnett, in collaboration with Jimmy Panetta—the secretary for the Central Coast Veterans Cemetery Foundation, son of former CIA director and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Afghanistan War veteran—acquired bridge loans from the Packard Foundation and Cannery Row in Monterey totaling the amount needed, locking in the federal source. Though, Burnett says, fundraising is still crucial.

news1-2The long-planned Central Coast State Veterans Cemetery will be constructed on 78 acres of land on the old Fort Ord military base. Photos courtesy of the bureau of land management“There's a huge need for this cemetery on the Central Coast,” Burnett says. “The closest national cemetery is hours away in the San Joaquin Valley. That's a much different part of the state. A lot of veterans made their home on the Monterey Bay, and you want to be close to the place that's your home.”

Panetta recently met with a woman from the Monterey Peninsula whose father was a highly decorated World War II veteran. When he passed away, she had him buried in a national cemetery down south, but now has to travel for hours to visit his grave.

“Her question to me was, 'Can he be disinterred and re-buried up here in the Central Coast cemetery?’” Panetta says. “I think it's important to not only give back to the veterans and honor them for their service, but also to honor their families for their sacrifice by giving them a burial area that they can get to easily.”

The first phase of construction for the cemetery will only include the general infrastructure and an aboveground columbarium for cremated remains, Burnett says.

The second phase will be an in-ground burial—“What people typically think of for a grave site,” he says.

Santa Cruz veteran Leff says he has some concerns about the plans for the new cemetery.

“The money they have will just put down some gravel and get us some places where families can put the cremated remains of their loved ones,” he says. “There's not enough money for a true veterans cemetery—grass, headstones, burials with flags over the casket. That's what military cemeteries are all about.”

Burnett agrees with Leff's concerns and says Phase 1 for the cemetery has more to do with getting the project's momentum going.

“This project is not done until we get Phase 2 built,” he says. “You have to start somewhere, and Phase 1 is right around the corner.”

He says Phase 1 is also about demonstrating to the federal government that the state can build the cemetery and operate it successfully, earning them the right to go back to the federal government down the line and request more grant money for Phase 2.

The project still requires an environmental review period and to have architectural drawings made, so beginning construction is still down the line, Burnett says. No start date has been set.

While ultimately the federal government will cover the expenses for the state cemetery, Leff says it would have been much better if the Central Coast Veterans Cemetery were a national one.

That would have cut down significantly on the level of bureaucratic negotiation and sped up the whole process, but the law states that no two national cemeteries can be built within 75 miles of one another. And while the San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery takes about two hours to drive to, it's just 52 miles away from Fort Ord.

“The California budget goes up, down and sideways very often,” Leff says. “And to depend upon the state budget to keep it open is not as trustworthy as having the federal government own it.”

Panetta says collaboration between the state and federal government on the cemetery funding plans have gone smoothly, but that it is a little like having “multiple chefs in the kitchen.”

For the ongoing management and maintenance of the cemetery, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will pay $700 into the operation for every burial.

Panetta says that should cover the ongoing expenses.

The Central Coast Veterans Cemetery would only be the second state cemetery in California. The other is in Shasta County. There are nine national cemeteries in California, only six of which are open for new interments.

In a press statement, Monning, whose district includes Santa Cruz, said securing the funds for the cemetery and authorizing the construction is a big win for California and the result of years of effort.

“The governor’s signature on SB 232 is the culmination of a long journey we have been on with our local, state, and federal partners to move this cemetery project forward,” he said. “It is an honor to be able to make this contribution to the community and support the establishment of the veterans cemetery at Fort Ord.”

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