Gazette opinion: National honor for Yellowstone County’s commitment

2014-05-26T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: National honor for Yellowstone County’s commitment The Billings Gazette
May 26, 2014 12:00 am

When the Yellowstone National Cemetery is dedicated today, Yellowstone County residents should take pride in knowing that they created this honorable resting place for American heroes.

In November 2006, 35,128 voters (61.38 percent) approved a 1-mill property tax levy for a county veterans cemetery. That overwhelming support allowed Yellowstone County to borrow funds needed to acquire land from the state adjoining the Laurel cemetery, develop an irrigation system and turn a piece of arid, windswept prairie into a dignified cemetery with grass, trees, restrooms, fencing and flag poles.

The cemetery story starts years before the vote. Members of local veteran organizations had long wanted a veterans cemetery that was open to all U.S. veterans and spouses because there were no such cemeteries in the vicinity of Yellowstone County, which is home to the state’s largest veteran population.

Kennedy’s quest

The idea caught fire about 10 years ago when County Commissioner Bill Kennedy joined the effort. Kennedy and Burt Gigoux trace the start to a conversation they had at Riverside Cemetery, the county’s pauper cemetery, which includes a number of veterans’ graves.

“Our vision was always when we first started this to have a national cemetery,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy and other Yellowstone County cemetery advocates had to get state statutes changed in two sessions of the Montana Legislature. First, law had to be changed to allow a county to have a veterans cemetery. Later, it was found that another law had to be revised so that county had authority to limit use of the cemetery to veterans and spouses. Democrat Lane Larson and Republicans Jeff Essmann and Michael Lange carried the bills.

The state of Montana supports certain cemeteries with fees from veteran vehicle license plates. But that money wasn’t available to Yellowstone County. That’s why Yellowstone went to voters for help.

Tester paves the way

When the Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery was dedicated in 2008, a big obstacle loomed over its prospects of ever becoming a national cemetery. New national cemeteries were supposed to have a population of 70,000 veterans within a 75-mile radius – a requirement impossible to meet in a vast rural region. So Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., sponsored legislation that would allow the Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery to become a national cemetery. Tester’s bill created an initiative that would designate ate eight cemeteries in rural areas. Sen. Max Baucus and Rep. Denny Rehberg supported that legislation. Today, Yellowstone National Cemetery will be the first dedicated under that new law.

“It took a lot of patience and a lot of support from a lot of people to get this done,” Kennedy said last week.

“It wouldn’t have happened without the voters of Yellowstone County,” Gigoux said. “It was definitely a community project.”

Both Gigoux and Kennedy have served on the Yellowstone County Cemetery Board since its inception. Most of the other board members also have been volunteering since the start, they are: James Mariska, Sue Davidson, Lee Stadtmiller, Richard Klose, Jimmie Kerr, George Blackard, Skip Venard, Sue Gillespie, Clete Knaub, Denis Pitman, Harlon Owens and Kurt Schulz. Being a cemetery board member was not always a glamorous job. They also helped trim grass and spruce up the cemetery.

250 veteran burials

The remains of more than 250 veterans and spouses are interred at the cemetery. Families of about 100 more have been waiting to have their loved ones’ remains interred until the cemetery became national, a VA official told the County Commission last week.

The county had to charge some fees to cover its costs, and charged more for folks from outside Yellowstone County. But the national cemetery will cover all burial costs; families will only pay funeral home expenses.

Montana’s entire congressional delegation is scheduled to be at the dedication today, along with the County Commission and leaders of the Crow and Northern Cheyenne tribes.

On Tuesday, the cemetery will start accepting veteran burials at no charge to families.

Congratulations to all who made this proud day possible. Congratulations to us, citizens of Yellowstone County, for pulling together to do what’s right and proper for those who have borne the burden of defending our nation.

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

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