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Angel Fire among 4 sites chosen for new veteran cemeteries

ALBUQUERQUE — Angel Fire, Gallup, Carlsbad and Fort Stanton are the sites chosen for new veterans cemeteries in rural New Mexico, Gov. Susana Martinez said Tuesday.

If approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Veterans Cemetery Grants Program, the four cemeteries will complement the state’s two existing national veterans cemeteries — one in Santa Fe and one at Fort Bayard in southwestern New Mexico.

“Those two locations [Santa Fe and Fort Bayard] are simply not close enough to bury a loved one and visit them regularly,” the governor told about 75 people gathered Tuesday at the New Mexico Veterans’ Memorial in Albuquerque. As a result, she said, more people are choosing to bury deceased military veterans in private or public cemeteries. She said her mother-in-law chose to bury her husband, a Navy veteran, in a cemetery in Las Cruces so she could visit his grave regularly.

The four communities were chosen for a variety of reasons, including the number of veterans living in each community, said Timothy Hale, secretary of the state Department of Veterans’ Services.

About 170,000 veterans live in New Mexico. According to Veterans’ Services, about 21,000 veterans live in the Angel Fire area, 32,000 live in the Carlsbad area, 52,000 in the Fort Stanton/Ruidoso/Roswell/Alamogordo region and close to 25,000 live the Gallup area.

The national Veterans Cemetery Grants Program, established in 1978, provides funding to help states establish and manage veterans cemeteries in areas where national cemeteries do not meet the needs. The deadline for applying for funds is July 1, Hale said. If the state’s grant proposal is approved later this year, the new cemeteries could be open within 18 months.

The grants program requires the state to initially invest about $600,000, or 10 percent of the estimated cost of the four cemeteries, to start work on the projects. The U.S. Veterans Affairs Department would then conduct regular evaluations of the operation and maintenance of the four sites and, over time, the federal government would reimburse New Mexico for the $600,000 if officials feel the state is meeting national standards.

Three of the new cemeteries will be somewhere in the 3- to 5-acre range, Hale said, while Carlsbad’s will be closer to 2 or 3 acres.

Ten communities held town hall meetings last year to convey interest and offer proposals for the new cemeteries. According to Martinez and Hale, the four chosen communities put together the best proposals, including availability of land.

While many at Tuesday’s event heralded the decision, several Taos residents, including veterans Francis Cordova and Eloy Jeantete, expressed displeasure with the choice of Angel Fire over Taos. Both men said the main routes from Taos to Angel Fire can be difficult and even impassible during rough winter months. They said Taos County, with help from state legislators, raised about $175,000 and a donation of about 25 acres near the town golf course for a veterans cemetery. They estimate that about 2,700 veterans live in the Taos area.

Angel Fire is home to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and Cordova said he thinks that is why the state chose that locale.

Other veterans, including Albuquerque resident Melvyn Montaño, said they would prefer a veterans cemetery in Albuquerque. But Hale said the city is too close to the Santa Fe National Cemetery. Veterans Affairs guidelines do not favor opening new cemeteries in communities that are within 75 miles of an existing cemetery, he explained.

Martinez and Hale said if the Veterans Affairs Department approves the four proposed rural sites, the state will continue to apply for national grant money with the hope of adding one or two more sites a year over the course of the next few years.

About 52,000 veterans and their spouses are buried at the Santa Fe National Cemetery, while more than 4,700 veterans and spouses are buried at the Fort Bayard National Cemetery.

Contact Robert Nott at 986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.

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