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Veterans led effort to build first cemetery

LITTLE FALLS — At the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery at Camp Ripley, you can't escape noticing that the headstones are alike, standing in perfect rows that rise and fall along the gently rippling terrain, as if the stones themselves are on military parade.

Gwyn Shelley thinks her dad liked that. Joseph Shelley is buried there with his wife, Eunice, their gravesite marked by one of those identical stones.

"He was a very military man," she said.

He appreciated the precision, the camaraderie of being amidst fellow soldiers even after death, she said. "He loves it because it's everything my dad stood for," she said.

Her dad served in World War II and Korea and was in the National Guard. So it makes sense he wanted to be buried at the state cemetery, Gwyn Shelley said. She loves coming there because it's along the banks of the Mississippi River where they lived, she said. "The memories just flood" in.

Alvin Keding, of Plymouth, sat in a wheeled walker in front of the columbarium where the ashes of his wife, Lillian Keding, are interred and where he will be placed some day. He sat there, quietly looking at the marker in one of several walls of similar markers.

Keding said he and his wife once saw the cemetery while driving and stopped. "We thought, 'Boy, this is really pretty,'" he said,

He could have been buried at the Fort Snelling National Cemetery in the Twin Cities, but no.

"I like the peace and quiet here you don't get at Fort Snelling," he said.

Kevin Doucette and the cemetery's other groundskeepers see that a lot. He said it's common to see people stop and just sit by a grave. Some even bring crocheting, lunches or a book and spend time there with their loved ones, said Doucette and fellow groundskeepers Jeremiah Determan and Cory Engen.

Some like it so well that "they will park and walk around and run" just because they like the serenity, Engen said.

There are so many visitors at times that they feel guilty making noise with their mowers or diggers, Doucette said,

He said he's honored to be a groundskeeper. He's not a veteran but his dad served in World War II. "It's rewarding," he said. "You know what those guys did for us."

A veterans effort

David P. Swantek, the cemetery director who soon also will oversee the new veterans cemetery being built in Preston, said the Camp Ripley site opened 20 years ago.

"A group of local vets were pushing this thing along and got it going and donated it to the state," he said. The land is outside Camp Ripley and most people assumed it was owned by the National Guard training site. But it was donated, he said.

At first, politicians weren't all that keyed up about supporting a cemetery, he said.

"It really was a veteran effort that kept it afloat for a while," he said. Getting money for the development and operation of the cemetery was a problem, he said. But once it got started, that went away, said Swantek, who has been there 18 years.

"The political support and funding is no longer that much of a challenge," he said.

The Little Falls location is ideal because it's next to Camp Ripley and the river and in the central part of the state, he said. More than 5,000 people are buried there now; it's capacity is about 24,000, he said. The site is developed in 10-year segments with another now going on, he said. It's adding more places for burials and another columbarium.

When veterans or their spouses are buried there, they typically have the bigger service in their hometown and then their remains are brought to cemetery's committal building. An honor guard of local veterans stands at attention as two National Guard officers bring in an American flag and the remains, or just the flag if there's a coffin.

There is a short ceremony in the building. The remains are then buried or put in the columbarium. After an hour or two, the family can visit the site. With up to several burials per day, it's too dangerous to have them around as the coffins are lowered, Swantek said.

Veterans are buried for free but there is a charge for spouses, he said. At national cemeteries, both are buried for free, he said.

Last honor

The two National Guard officers who performed the ceremony inside the committal building were sergeants Kyle Bruflodt and Eddy Sager, both of St. Cloud.

Both volunteered for the duty.

"It's honorable, it's one of the most honorable things I can do for somebody," Sager said.

"This is one of the last honors that we can give them," Bruflodt said.

Bruflodt said he's done hundreds of the rituals and it never gets old.

"It's just important, very important to me to those veterans and their families," he said. He was on four years active duty in Iraq on sniper patrol in Baghdad and is now back home in the Guard.

When he hands the family the flag, "all of them are thankful, all of them are sad," he said.

The plan is to have similar rituals done by other veterans groups in the Preston area, Swantek said.

Even as the work is being done in Preston, the veterans affairs department is looking for sites in the Duluth and Redwood Falls areas, he said.

Because the Fillmore County Board offered the land, work on that cemetery jumped ahead of work on other sites, he said. "That kind of got the cemetery down there out in the lead," he said.

The Redwood Falls site is challenging because it's mostly ag land and that is expensive, up to $10,000 an acre, he said. But because the Redwood County Board wants a site there, they recently voted to chip in $1 million for land.

"In a lot of ways, Fillmore County has really paved the way," Swantek said.

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