Yellowstone County transfers cemetery to VA; dedication Monday

2014-05-20T12:20:00Z 2014-05-21T06:15:04Z Yellowstone County transfers cemetery to VA; dedication MondayBy CLAIR JOHNSON The Billings Gazette

After years of work, Yellowstone County is in the home stretch for the transfer and dedication of its veterans cemetery as a national cemetery for veterans.

During Tuesday’s board meeting, the commission executed documents transferring ownership of the cemetery north of Laurel to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA will accept the documents Friday.

At noon Monday — Memorial Day — a formal ceremony will dedicate the renamed Yellowstone National Cemetery, 55 Buffalo Trail Road. The public is invited.

“We can’t wait,” said Sara Elton, chief of operations in Lakewood, Colo., for the VA’s National Cemetery Administration.

Elton, along with Gerard Lyons, who will be the cemetery manager, attended the commissioners’ board meeting.

The Yellowstone National Cemetery is the first national veterans cemetery as part of a rural initiative, Elton said.

The cemetery is the only national veterans cemetery in Montana and in an area that includes North Dakota, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and Nevada, Elton said. The closest cemetery is in Sturgis, S.D.

Normally, a national veterans cemetery requires there be 70,000 veterans within a 75-mile radius — a requirement difficult for a large rural state like Montana, said Commissioner Bill Kennedy, the commission’s liaison to the county’s cemetery board.

“That kind of pushed us out. We beat the odds. It’s been a long time coming,” he said.

Kennedy credited Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., for being “a bulldog” for federal legislation that enabled rural states, like Montana, to have a national cemetery. He also said the project required legislative changes by two sessions of the Montana Legislature.

Yellowstone County has been working for nearly 10 years to have a national veterans cemetery after veterans and family members asked why there wasn’t one when the county is home to the state’s largest veteran population. In Montana, veterans make up more than 20 percent of the population — the highest percentage in the nation.

From the beginning, the county cemetery was designed to meet national standards and was dedicated on Veterans Day 2008. A voter-approved special one-mill levy in 2006 generated money to purchase the land and developed the cemetery.

Kennedy said the mill levy, which raises about $225,000 a year, will end in about seven years, when the debt is paid off.

With the transfer, the cemetery will be managed by the VA, with Lyons as the new local manager.

“I’m just excited and honored and humbled. I want to serve the community,” said Lyons, whose office will be in the VA’s clinic in Billings.

At 28, Lyons, of Davenport, Iowa, is a U.S. Army combat veteran, having fought in Iraq. He comes to Montana from working as caretaker at the Rock Island National Cemetery within the Rock Island Arsenal near Rock Island, Ill.

Lyons said he has relatives buried in national veterans cemeteries.

“We couldn’t have picked a better representative,” Elton said of Lyons. “He has that extra something special inside of him,” she added.

The VA expects to start scheduling burials on Tuesday, the first day after the dedication. Elton said there may be 100 veterans who have been waiting for burial. Beginning May 27, burial will be a benefit, she said.

Benefits at the cemetery will include a U.S. burial flag, perpetual care of the gravesite and a memorial certificate bearing the president’s signature. Burial plots, opening and closing of the grave, headstone and markers are free for the veteran. The only costs to a veteran are funeral home fees.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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