Delegation pushes for new veterans’ cemetery

By Elizabeth Stortroen

Members of the state’s congressional delegation are increasing the pressure for a new national cemetery to serve Colorado’s veterans.

On Wednesday, March 25, Colorado’s U.S. Senators, Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, both Democrats, introduced legislation to create a new national veterans’ cemetery in El Paso County.

The legislation mirrors a measure co-sponsored in the House of Representatives by 5th District Congressman Doug Lamborn, a Republican, and 3rd District Congressman John Salazar, a Democrat. Lamborn noted that the proposal has the support of the entire Colorado congressional delegation, and that all nine members have signed on as co-sponsors.

The proposed cemetery probably would be situated south of Colorado Springs, in Lamborn’s district. Lamborn met earlier this month with Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki to seek his backing for the project.

“Many veterans live in Southern Colorado — more than 100,000 in my congressional district alone,” Lamborn said. “If we can get a new VA cemetery in southern Colorado, it will help the many widows and veterans in that part of the state, and extend the life of the Fort Logan cemetery.”

The latest move is part of a decade-long effort by veterans in Colorado to have a national cemetery that would serve the area’s large military and veteran population. According to the 2000 census, veterans made up 21 percent of El Paso County’s population, compared to 14 percent of the national population.

“Congressman Salazar has been pushing the House Appropriations Committee, and we are going to do everything on (the Senate) side to get not just the authorization, but the appropriations,” Bennet said, speaking on behalf of himself and Udall during a conference call with reporters.

Bennet said he hopes the new cemetery would give Colorado veterans a “place to call their own” after nearly a decade long fight.

“I believe it is right to have this memorial for our fallen soldiers … especially where there is a high concentration of soldiers in the area,” Bennet said. “We need to relieve the pressure on the other veteran cemeteries in the state.”

Joe Turnbach, director of Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver, said according to projections, the cemetery will run out of space and close in 2019 unless a new cemetery is established.

Turnbach said Fort Logan saw more than 3,600 veteran interments in 2008.

The other options for Colorado’s other national cemetery, Fort Lyon National Cemetery in Las Animas, is far from the state’s Front Range population centers, and considerably smaller than Fort Logan.

When Bennet was asked if he had discussed the plans for the new national veterans’ cemetery with Shinseki, he said they spoke briefly on the topic last week.

“He made no commitments one way or the other,” Bennet said, adding that he didn’t believe the time was right to press Shinseki for details. “But he was generally positive and he understands why we feel there is a need for this.”

Bennet and Udall also announced on Wednesday that nearly $11 million from the stimulus package would help fund facilities for Colorado veterans.

“Colorado veterans have made enormous sacrifices for our country, and, in return, we should make sure they have the high-quality facilities and health care that are worthy of their service,” Bennet said.

Noted Udall, “Veterans risked their lives for our freedom, and they have earned health care and benefits that match their sacrifice. This funding is a terrific win for our veterans and for our economy.