Local officials renew push to have veterans cemetery located in Grayling
Tue, 08/18/2020 - 12:45pm caleb
Dan Sanderson | Staff Writer
Local officials are joining in on a grassroots effort to provide a final resting place for Michigan’s war heroes in the community.
Col. Wayne Koppa, a former Camp Grayling commander, gave a presentation to the Crawford County Board of Commissioners at a special meeting on Wednesday, August 13, regarding veterans’ cemeteries.
Koppa said he started researching getting a state-operated veterans’ cemetery located in Grayling two years ago with Brigadier General Lawrence Schloegl, the current assistant adjutant general for the Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
At the time, Koppa said Veterans Affairs officials were focused on building nursing homes downstate for veterans.
Michigan has two national operated veterans’ cemeteries, which include the Fort Custer National Cemetery in Battle Creek in Calhoun County and the Great Lakes National Veterans Cemetery in Holly in Oakland County.
Under the State Veterans’ Cemetery Act, the goal is to have veterans cemeteries that are no farther than 150 miles apart.
“The idea is to provide a final resting place for veterans that is in close proximity to families where they reside,” Koppa said.
Since 1978, the federal Veterans Affairs Agency has been awarding grants to states to develop cemeteries to honor members of the armed services. The cemetery grant program had paid for 116 state-operated veterans’ cemeteries in the nation.
Tennessee and Kentucky each have five state-operated veterans’ cemeteries, while Minnesota and Wisconsin each have three.
Koppa has visited some of those cemeteries as well as one state-operated cemetery is Missouri.
“They are very much like a mini Arlington Cemetery,” said Koppa regarding the national cemetery located in Washington D.C.
Koppa said the pre-application phase to apply for funding for a veterans’ cemetery does not require any money or any legislation.
He estimated that it would cost $5 million to $7 million to build the cemetery, which would have a $1 million operating budget per year. Koppa said that the state would have to fund the operational cost for the cemetery, with 65 to 80 percent of the revenues being reimbursed by the federal government.
That would mean the state would have to fund the veterans’ cemetery with about $200,000 per year. The state would also have to fund 10 percent of the construction costs, which would be reimbursed after the cemetery is built.
Koppa said requirements to obtain funding for a veterans’ cemetery are that local officials are interested in pursuing the project, have got property identified for the cemetery, and has an unserved veterans’ population.
Koppa said that it would be ideal to have the cemetery at Camp Grayling or other state-owned property in Crawford County since the community is 147 miles from Holly.
“We fit into that part of the picture pretty good,” Koppa said.
Koppa said there are 130,000 unserved veterans from mid-Michigan counties that would be eligible to be buried in the veterans’ cemetery.
Koppa said the top awardee for grant funding for a veterans’ cemetery last year had a population of unserved veterans under 30,000.
“We’re in the right place, and we’ve got lots of unserved veterans,” he said.
Koppa said the federal government will pay for the maintenance and employees that would staff the cemetery. He said that an application to apply for funding is July 1 with a list of potential selection sites coming out in September.
The funding would be allocated in the budget for the next fiscal year. It would take one year to build the cemetery, which would put Grayling out four years if the community is successful in obtaining grant funds.
“It gets us on the map as a site we want them to look at for a veterans’ cemetery,” Koppa said.
Koppa estimated that 500 to 700 veterans would be buried in the cemetery per year, which would also bring in revenues from the federal government.
Crawford County Commissioner Sharon Priebe questioned if veterans who are already buried could be relocated to the cemetery. Her late husband, Raymond G. Priebe, served in the U.S. Navy.
Koppa said he would explore that option with military officials. He suspects that veterans would request to be laid to rest in the cemetery.
“I think veterans would say I want to end up there with my fellow service members,” Koppa said.
Priebe said she would commit her support for the project if efforts move forward.
“I think that is something we seriously need to look at,” she said. “I will help you any way I can when we get to that part.”
Koppa said that he and Crawford County Commissioner Carey Jansen met with state military officials regarding the cemetery project.
“I think we need to go throttle up on this,” Koppa said.
Military officials pointed out it may be difficult for the state to commit funding. Koppa pointed out the legislature just dipped into the state’s rainy day fund to make up for lost revenues due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s been a rainy day forever for veterans who are trying to get buried in Michigan, and it’s not like it doesn’t get reimbursed,” Koppa said.
Jansen said she is committed to seeing the project though to its completion.
“Veterans are something that are very important to me as well,” she said.
Shelly Pinkelman, the chair of the Crawford County Board of Commissioners, recalled legislation being introduced in the past to have a veterans’ cemetery located in Grayling.
In 2000, former State Rep. Ken Bradstreet (R-Gaylord), did author legislation to have a veterans’ cemetery built in Grayling and one in the Upper Peninsula.
In an interview with the Crawford County Avalanche last week, Bradstreet said there was never a hearing on the bill, which would have been during Gov. John Engler’s administration.
The county board directed Crawford County Administrator Paul Compo to write a resolution of support for the veterans’ cemetery project for its next meeting, which will be held at 10 a.m. on Thursday, August 27.
Similar resolutions will be sought from the Grayling City Council and Grayling Charter Township Board of Trustees.