On a day reserved for paying tribute to fallen service members, hundreds of veterans and their family members, active service members and dignitaries turned out to break ground Monday on land that will be a permanent place for remembrance.
“These grounds will be a tribute to veterans,” said John Lee, director of the state Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Eastern Washington State Veterans Cemetery is a $9.5 million project on about 80 acres just north of West Medical Lake at Espanola and Ritchey roads. When it opens May 31, 2010, it will be the final resting place for veterans from a 75-mile radius from the cemetery.
It’s the first state veterans cemetery in Washington, although there is a national veterans cemetery in Kent.
An estimated 140,000 retired veterans in the region are eligible to be buried at the cemetery, said Duane Wolfe, a member of its board.
Coeur d’Alene resident Roy Higgs, who served in the Marine Corps, and several other retired Marines drove from North Idaho – one of the areas considered for the project – for the groundbreaking.
“I think it’s a great honor bestowed on us,” Higgs said.
Any veteran in the region will be eligible to be buried in the cemetery, and families won’t have to pay burial fees. The cemetery will provide concrete liners for caskets, shelters for funeral services and memorial stones.
The Patriot Guard Riders – volunteers from several motorcycle clubs in the area – came to the event to help direct traffic, pass out bottled water to veterans, and park cars for veterans unable to walk far.
“We’ve got to take care of our veterans,” said Larry “Commo” Griffith, the Northeast District captain for the Washington chapter of the riders. Griffith said he expected 30 to 35 volunteers to come to help, but 110 showed up.
Speakers included U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers; Col. Robert Thomas, commander of the 92nd Air Refueling Wing at Fairchild Air Force Base; and Col. Gregory Bulkley, commander of the 141st Air Refueling Wing of the Air National Guard stationed at Fairchild. They and others mentioned their gratitude toward those who serve in the military and the importance of remembering the fallen and their families.
Cemetery director Rick Cesler called the members of the cemetery board over to a square of land to officially break ground.
“We’re going to get this project started today,” Cesler said.
Each took a shovelful of earth and held it up so viewers could snap pictures.
The cemetery will be funded in part through the sale of armed forces license plates. “For every veteran that purchases a license plate, $28 of that money goes into a stewardship fund that allows the cemetery to function,” Wolfe said.