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Sun., May 30, 2010, 9:50 a.m.

Mike Gregoire: New cemetery a fitting tribute

I graduated from the University of Washington in June 1968. I was 22 and full of dreams. I had decided to follow my mother’s career path and become a teacher.

After my last college exam I went home and found my draft notice in the mail. My future, which had seemed so bright and so certain, at once became strange and inconceivable. While my classmates celebrated their graduation day, I began basic training at Fort Lewis.

I hadn’t planned on it, but the Vietnam War shaped me. The Mekong Delta became my classroom. My dreams turned from a safe career and a future to the day I would return home.

Our fight wore on and affected an entire generation – a generation that is still healing from wounds sown decades ago. Too many never came back. We lost many of the best and brightest of that generation for reasons many questioned and with little to show.

Most of us who came back expected a homecoming. Instead we bore the stigma of a war that we hadn’t sought but that had found us. America didn’t distinguish between the war and those who were asked to serve. It was the first time in our nation’s history that wearing a military uniform wasn’t the source of pride that it should be.

When I returned to my hometown of Everett I met my future wife. We started our marriage, and our first daughter was born in Spokane. I had a 30-year career as a health care criminal investigator. But it was my time serving in the Army that started a lifelong commitment. I vowed to use my voice to give one to the veterans across the state, and not just to those from the Vietnam era but for all of those who served our country.

Tomorrow the Eastern Washington State Veterans Cemetery will be dedicated near Medical Lake. It provides a final resting place for our men and women who have served their country. More than a cemetery, this is a place to honor and to remember the lives of those who gave something bigger than themselves. Their lives – and commitment – should never be forgotten.

But it’s not always that easy. Washington state is home to 670,000 veterans. One in nine of our residents have served in the armed forces. Yet before now the only option for interment has been the Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent. For the 140,000 veterans and their families in the eastern part of the state, using this faraway facility has not been how they wish to remember and keep their commitment to their loved ones. Started more than a decade ago, a dedicated group of residents pushed forward and created the first state-owned and state-run veterans cemetery. The Washington Department of Veterans Affairs and Director John Lee sought funding and support and have done a masterful job of making their vision a reality.

These markers are more than places where families can remember their loved ones. They are important reminders of the independence we have fought for, and of the freedoms we now have but forget what it took to get them. They are a powerful way to say that we will never forget what service and selflessness mean to our country.

As we still fight two wars abroad, our military is stretched more than ever. With this generation’s warriors it has been different. Agree or disagree with the war, we welcome them home, we thank them for their service and we show them the respect they deserve.

I continue to travel across Washington, meeting with veterans groups and talking with families. We have to show them that our state is living up to our commitments to servicemen and servicewomen. Providing support through education, health care and employment benefits is essential. For example, connecting returning veterans with jobs in our “Helmets to Hardhats” program gives hope to service members’ futures. And eliminating homelessness among veterans must happen.

I am honored to attend funerals across the state for our servicemen and servicewomen. Their families enter a sacred group of all those who have come before who have lost loved ones to war. Our state’s dedication to our military members, as well as Spokane’s leadership in building this first state cemetery, is a fitting way to honor their memory.

Mike Gregoire, often referred to as “First Mike,” is married to Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire.

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