Witness Testimony of David Swantek, Cemetery Director, Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs
Chairman Runyan and Congressman Walz:
It is a tremendous honor to be before you today in Preston MN for this hearing: “Honoring our Nation’s Veterans: Examining the Veterans Cemetery Grants Program”.
150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln promised a war torn nation that those that had borne the battle would be honored and not forgotten. A system of National Cemeteries was the product of that promise. These national shrines remain today, a daily reminder to the tremendous cost of freedom and democracy which we as American citizens have enjoyed since 1776.
It has been my deep privilege for the past 20 years to work with the families of American Heroes, our Veterans, during their greatest times of need. As a cemetery caretaker at the Oregon Trail State Veterans Cemetery in my home state of Wyoming and for the past 16 years as the Director of the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery in Little Falls, MN I have been a direct witness on a daily basis to the profound gratitude that Veterans families experience knowing their loved ones rest with honor in perpetuity next to their Comrades in Arms. The State of Minnesota is proud to provide this honor to those who seek our services and we are committed to expanding access to this earned benefit throughout our great State.
In 1985, the Minnesota State Legislature passed legislation authorizing a State Veterans Cemetery in Minnesota. The location was undetermined and the State had no formal plans to construct a State Veterans Cemetery. In 1986, two WWII Veterans from central Minnesota discovered the authorizing legislation from the previous year and were determined to have a State Veterans Cemetery constructed in central Minnesota. As members of a local DAV Chapter, these Veterans identified a parcel of property, raised the funds necessary to purchase the property and donated the site to the State of Minnesota to be used for a new State Veterans Cemetery. Due to a lack of development funds, the State of Minnesota did not pursue development of a cemetery and instead returned the donated land back to the local DAV Chapter in 1989. Undeterred, this local group of Veterans organized an association and began soliciting development funds from Veterans Service Organizations, local businesses and individual donors. This group of dedicated Veterans built a ground swell of support in the Legislature and ultimately with former Governor Arne Carlson. Governor Carlson signed into law the establishment of the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery and the State would once again take ownership of the site near Little Falls on September 1, 1994.
Outside the control of the State, a decision was made in the summer of 1994 to start burying Veterans on-site in Little Falls prior to the State taking ownership of the cemetery property. While understandable from the perspective of a dedicated group of Veterans who had years earlier witnessed their donation of property to the State produce no cemetery, this decision was detrimental to the early development of a State Veterans Cemetery in Little Falls.
VETERANS CEMETERY GRANT
Even though the State of Minnesota had inherited an operational State Veterans Cemetery in the fall of 1994 and resources originally intended for development of a new cemetery had to be redirected towards operational needs, plans moved forward to seek financial assistance from the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) for development of the Little Falls cemetery.
In 1995, the State of Minnesota was awarded its first grant from NCA. At that time the grant program was a 50% matching grant, requiring the State to provide 50% of the costs for construction.
In 1999, Congress authorized NCA to begin providing up to 100% of the development costs to construct, expand or improve State Veterans Cemeteries and the State of Minnesota applied for a second grant from NCA in 2001 for our cemetery in Little Falls. This project provided for the major development that had been badly needed since 1994 and constructed the major infrastructure that has allowed our cemetery in Little Falls to become what it is today. Last July the cemetery in Little Falls was recognized by the Veterans Cemetery Grants Program for “Excellence of Appearance”. Only 4 of the 86 State Veterans Cemeteries in operation have been honored with this award. I am especially proud of this recognition given our humble beginnings and the difficult circumstances under which the cemetery in Little Falls was established.
EXPANDING AN EARNED BENEFIT
In 2007, Governor Tim Pawlenty, announced as part of his Veterans initiatives for the upcoming Legislative session, that the State would construct a new State Veterans Cemetery in northeastern Minnesota near Duluth. A grant pre-application was submitted to the Veterans Cemetery Grants Program for construction of a new State Veterans Cemetery and a search for suitable cemetery property began.
During the 2008 Legislative session it was necessary to amend the authorizing Legislation from 1985 to allow the State to operate more than one State Veterans Cemetery. The proposed expansion of the State’s Veterans Cemetery program was supported in both the State House and State Senate. The Veterans committee in the State Senate asked for a report on other potential locations, particularly in southern Minnesota, for a new State Veterans Cemetery.
In 2009, we reported to the Veterans committee that locations in both southwestern and southeastern Minnesota had Veteran populations that would support the construction of new State Veterans Cemeteries. By the end of the 2009 Legislative session, the MN Department of Veterans Affairs (MDVA), was successful in securing a $1.5M appropriation to be used for the design of two new State Veterans Cemeteries in northeastern MN and southwestern MN. Following the session a pre-application for construction of a second new State Veterans Cemetery in southwestern MN was submitted to the Veterans Cemetery Grants Program. During this time we continued to search for suitable property in both northeastern and southwestern Minnesota. We worked with our State’s Department of Natural Resources, local county government officials in both regions and potential private land donors. Though we have had several leads and viewed multiple properties, suitable cemetery sites have proved difficult to find.
MOTIVATED LOCAL PARTNER
In 2010, MDVA was asked to present information to the Fillmore County Commissioners on the potential for a new State Veterans Cemetery in southeastern MN. The requirements of a suitable site for constructing a State Veterans Cemetery were discussed and Fillmore County expressed their interest in donating property to the State for the construction of a cemetery. While MDVA was interested in the offer from Fillmore County, the Legislature had not authorized a new State Veterans Cemetery in southeastern MN. During the summer of 2010 the Fillmore County Commissioners and County Administrator visited our current State Veterans Cemetery in Little Falls. The visit provided an opportunity for the County to see how a State Veterans Cemetery operates and what a new cemetery in Fillmore County could mean for Veterans in southeastern MN. I believe that visit solidified the Counties commitment to doing everything possible to make a new State Veterans Cemetery in Fillmore County a reality.
In 2011, MDVA successfully worked with Representative Greg Davids and Senator Jeremy Miller to once again amend authorizing Legislation to allow the Department to pursue construction of a new State Veterans Cemetery in southeastern MN, along with a creative fiscal amendment providing for cemetery design without the requirement for any additional appropriated funds. After passage of this Legislation, in the summer of 2011, MDVA submitted a third pre-application for the construction of a new State Veterans Cemetery to the Veterans Cemetery Grants Program.
Today I’m happy to report that significant site suitability assessment including environmental and cultural assessment, soil borings and grading analysis has been completed and the proposed property appears to meet the suitability requirements for constructing a new State Veterans Cemetery.
Since 1994, when the State of Minnesota committed to provide our Nation’s Heroes with a final resting place which commemorates and honors their sacrifice and service to our country, we have found inspired partners and supporters at every turn. From the two central Minnesota WWII Veterans who wanted to see a State Veterans Cemetery built in the State of Minnesota and spent years raising funds and soliciting local and political support, to Members of Congress at the end of the last century who changed federal law to allow NCA to provide States with the construction funding necessary to construct, expand or improve State Veterans Cemeteries in sparsely populated locations in rural America, to state legislators in Minnesota whose support of Veterans issues across our State positively impacts the lives of our Veterans, to the National Cemetery Administration whose support of State Veterans Cemeteries provides Veterans with a burial option close to their homes, and local governments like Fillmore County who have the commitment and determination to do all they can to provide their part in continuing the promise made by President Lincoln 150 years ago.
Because of this cooperation, from Federal, State and Local partners I am confident that in the near future, we will gather again to dedicate a new national shrine in Fillmore County honoring our American Heroes.