A wet wind snapped the Stars and Stripes to attention as the first Washington State Veterans Cemetery was dedicated before at least 3,000 people on Monday.
In the crowd of veterans, their families and friends, two former airborne infantrymen swapped stories.
Gene Frice, 84, of Bend, Ore., fought in Europe during World War II. Roger Havercroft, 71, a Spokane native who now lives in Atlanta, served two tours in Vietnam. The two retired colonels had not met before. They each took time off from visiting family and friends to attend the Memorial Day dedication ceremony.
“I was in Vietnam. I got shot at. I wasn’t a hero,” Havercroft said.
He and Frice were among the men and women whom dignitaries on stage kept thanking for their sacrifice on Monday.
“We acknowledge the debt that we owe,” Gov. Chris Gregoire said.
Of the state’s 640,000-plus veterans, more than 140,000 are from Eastern Washington – not enough for a federally run cemetery, such as the Tahoma National Cemetery in Western Washington.
So by a 2007 act of the Legislature, the state created this “place of permanent peace as a statement of our gratitude,” Gregoire said.
Joining the governor on the stage was 5th District U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who called the cemetery “a place where patriotism rests, where bravery is buried, where freedom is remembered.”
Leading the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance was Glenn Wight, of Medical Lake, a 16-year-old Boy Scout who raised more than $6,000 and built the 50 20-foot flagpoles on which the Stars and Stripes flew Monday.
“It seemed like a good chance to honor the veterans,” Wight said of the project that will help him become an Eagle Scout.
The casket flags now flying on Wight’s flagpoles were donated by the families of deceased veterans, including that of Wight’s grandfather, who served in the Army.
Also in attendance were Col. Robert Thomas, Fairchild Air Force Base commander; John Lee, director of the state Department of Veterans Affairs; and Frank K. Salvas, director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Cemetery Administration.
The 120-acre property just north of West Medical Lake was purchased from another state agency for $450,000 and developed through an $8.8 million federal VA grant. The cemetery was designed by JGM Landscape Architects Inc. and built by Bouten Construction Co. of Spokane and local subcontractors.
During a ceremony on Saturday, members of the Spokane Tribe of Indians blessed the cemetery that sits on the tribe’s historic lands.
A few touches remain to be completed, but ground was only broken for the project during a Memorial Day ceremony last year.
Such a quick turnaround “was nothing short of miraculous,” said master of ceremonies Neal Sealock, a retired Army brigadier general and director of Spokane International Airport.
Burials, which will occur on weekdays, will begin Monday, and the remains of more than 200 veterans already are awaiting interment.
Any veteran discharged under conditions other than dishonorable, their spouses and dependent children are eligible to be buried in the cemetery, whether or not they are from Washington state.
“Every veteran is entitled to an honor service under federal law,” said Richard Cesler, the cemetery’s director, whom the governor credited with having a large role in making the cemetery a reality.
“We serve those who served,” Cesler said.