A cemetery of their own
PRESTON — Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address echoed in the words of Nathan Pike as he talked about how 155 acres in Preston could be dedicated in three years as the state's third veterans cemetery.
The Olmsted County Veterans Services officer said he knows of no formal ceremony. Instead, "When the first veteran is buried in this cemetery, that would actually hallow the ground," he said.
Lincoln, in his famed speech that will be recited thousands of times today during Memorial Day observances, said: "We can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract."
Pike, Jason Marquardt, who is the Fillmore County veterans service officer, and Fillmore County Commissioner Chuck Amunrud gave a tour of the site last week and talked about its importance to veterans. The county has offered to donate the land, which would be developed into a cemetery by 2015 or 2016 if all goes well in Washington and St. Paul.
It is expected that about 500 veterans would be buried there annually, with room for 40,000 to 50,000 in all. Spouses would be buried in the same vault as the veteran.
Things are moving along well, though the $8 million needed for development has yet to be approved, they said.
Only 35-40 acres will actually contain graves, Amunrud said. The rest will be for administrative buildings or driveways, and much of the land can't be used for burial because it's too steep or rocky, he said.
But the site will be beautiful. It's near U.S. 52, but it's far enough away to be quiet. You usually hear a lot more birds than cars, Amunrud said. The Root River Trail and the river itself is the cemetery's eastern boundary, and the highway is to the south.
They used another Memorial Day staple, the poem "In Flanders Fields," to describe what the cemetery would look like: "In Flanders Fields the poppies blow, Between the crosses row on row."
Each grave will be marked with an identical cross, all in straight rows, like soldiers lined up for inspection.
Having a cemetery is important to veterans in the region, said the three, who all are veterans. The nearest veterans cemeteries are in the Twin Cities and Little Falls.
Veterans want to be buried next to other veterans, Amunrud said. He and his wife plan to be cremated and have their remains put in the new cemetery.
"I want to be part of this," he said. "It's open, it's very peaceful, serene."
Other local veterans are trying to sell cemetery plots so they can be buried in the Preston cemetery, Marquardt said.
It's hard for non-veterans to understand, they said. Those in the military, especially those who were in combat, establish deeper bonds than those even with their own brothers and sisters.
"You depend on those people for your life and trust they will help bring you home," said Marquardt who was in the military police in Iraq and Afghanistan. "The military is just a big family."
"That's a good word, it really is," Amunrud said. He was in the military in the Vietnam era, but the memories of that time, the camaraderie, remain. "This is an ingrained part of my life."