By Jim Benemann
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (CBS4) – It’s taken two decades, but a new veterans cemetery is finally set to open on the eastern edge of Colorado Springs. It’s estimated one in every resident in El Paso County is a veteran.
Clearly, the need for the new cemetery has been there, but it was tricky getting approval for the Veteran’s Administration.
That’s because the VA requires there be at least 75 miles between an existing veterans cemetery and a new one. The City of Colorado Springs is a little too close to Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver to qualify.
That’s when the intense lobbying began — by Southern Colorado vets, their families and the congressional delegation.
Wally Jones is retired from a career in the Air Force.
“Well, most of us GI’s always say ‘yes’ when we’re asked to do something. Then later we say what in the world have we gotten ourselves into?” Jones laughed.
They got themselves into one heck of a challenge, but they pulled it off.
Linda Lee-Witt’s husband served in the Air Force and has passed away since his service. Linda worked hard with other veterans’ families to make this happen.
“People are thrilled. There are hundreds of people who’ve kept ashes of loved ones on their shelves. They kept waiting and kept asking us when can we come there. They’ve just had so many questions.”
The first burials will be in October, but what about that question of the 75 miles?
That stretch of Interstate 25 between Colorado Springs and Ft. Logan includes the often-treacherous Monument Hill. Bad weather can make the trip impossible for widows and other family members trying to get to Ft. Logan for burials.
In fact, a representative of the VA encountered that problem first hand when he got stuck in a spring blizzard when he came in for a field hearing on the cemetery issue a few years ago.
His experience really drove home the point that veterans and their families in southern Colorado needed their own cemetery.
The Pikes Peak National Cemetery sits on 374 acres and will be able to handle as many as 200,000 burials over the next 100 years.
“It’s just wonderful for our proud veterans and their families. They have really rallied around this project and I’m so happy for them,” said facility manager Paul LaGrange.
Linda-Lee Witt says the cemetery, even in these early stages, already feels like hallowed ground.
“The mountains in the background are a spectacular backdrop. This will certainly be a special place of healing for so many people.”
Jim Benemann is a longtime anchor at CBS4. He’s coming up on 40 years in the TV news business and loves reporting on the stories Coloradans are talking about. Send him your story ideas and follow Jim on Twitter @jimbcbs4.