Joint Hearing of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs of the U.S. Senate and the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives at 1:00 p.m. CDT.
Witness Testimony of Victor M. Fernandez, Pikes Peak Veterans Cemetery Committee, Colorado Springs, CO, Member
Good Morning, Congressmen. My name is Vic Fernandez, and I am a founding member of the Pikes Peak Veterans Cemetery Committee. Thank you for coming all the way out to Colorado to hear our message, and thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak for the Pikes Peak Veterans Cemetery Committee.
I am here today to answer three major questions.
First: Why do we need a new National Veterans Cemetery in Colorado?
Second: Why should it be established in the Pikes Peak Region?
Third: What have you (meaning us) done to assure that a National Veterans Cemetery is established here?
In response to the first question it is important to know that the State Of Colorado’s major National Veterans Cemetery is Fort Logan in Denver.
A new cemetery is needed because Fort Logan is filling up fast, and is expected to reach capacity between the years 2020 and 2024. However, Fort Logan National Cemetery is landlocked in a residential area of Denver, and can not be expanded without purchasing the very expensive developed residential land around it. The longer period of capacity is contingent on construction of a Columbarium on ground already set aside for such a facility at Ft. Logan.
Because of the size, geography, and weather hindrances of the State of Colorado, and the small size and remote location of the state’s other Cemeteries at Ft Lyon, and Homelake, the Veterans Count of The Pikes Peak Region are poorly served, and these Cemeteries do not offer reasonable service to Denver and its surrounding population centers.
This life of service of Fort Logan can be lengthened somewhat for the Veterans of Denver and Northern Colorado if the Pikes Peak Veterans Cemetery were to be established and open within the next five years. The actual lengthening of lifespan is totally dependant upon when the cemetery we propose is established.
In response to the second question, there are several cogent reasons why the Pikes Peak Region is the logical location for the proposed National Veterans Cemetery.
First, is the fact that the large Veteran population of The Pikes Peak Region and southern Colorado has not been properly served by Fort Logan, or the other veteran cemeteries in Colorado. Fort Logan is location in a difficult-to-find residential section of a major metropolitan area with poor access from Interstate or other highways. This has meant that surviving spouses and families from southern Colorado sometimes have made the trip to visit their loved ones, but failed to find the Cemetery.
Second, in Winter, it is especially difficult to get to Denver from Southern Colorado because of the Monument Hill geography, and the Palmer Divide weather patterns. These geographic and weather pattern hindrances make the Veterans Administration internal 75-mile rule a useless tool in the state of Colorado. The combination of the geography, weather patterns, and a foolish regulation serve only to assure that the Veterans and their families in the Pikes Peak Region and southern Colorado are not properly nor fairly served by Fort Logan.
Third, the future Veteran demographics for Colorado will show that the Pikes Peak Region, with its six military installations are producing Veterans at a much faster rate than the remainder of Colorado, where only one small Air Force Base exists. Fort Carson, which is the Army’s most popular station of choice, is alone on track to grow to a military population over 30,000 soldiers. And when many, if not most of these local military complete their service, they remain in the area, which further accelerates the growth of the Veteran population here. We also find that a large number of military who were once stationed here, return here after military retirement. In short, our veteran population is growing at a much faster rate than the remainder of Colorado.
Additionally, we find it interesting and somewhat incongruous that our large active-duty military population is not counted in the Veteran population numbers used to determine populations served by National Veterans Cemeteries. This is especially telling since approximately 400 of our local military have given their lives during the Global War on Terror. While some of these brave Americans were buried in their home towns, many of them have been buried or inurned in our local civilian cemeteries. These active duty Americans need to be counted, and properly served by a National Veterans Cemetery in the Pikes Peak Region.
So, what have we done to assure that a National Veterans Cemetery is established in the Pikes Peak Region?
My colleagues and I have worked for the establishment of a National Veterans Cemetery in the Pikes Peak Region of Colorado for over ten years. In that time, we have solicited the backing of members of the House of Representatives including Congressmen Joel Hefley, Doug Lamborn, John Salazar, and the past and present Colorado Contingent. We have also received the backing of Senators Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Wayne Allard and Ken Salazar over these years. Additionally, we have the backing of County Commissions and City Councils from several counties and cities in southern Colorado, as well as the last two governors of the State. We are supported by the Pueblo Veterans Council, The Pikes Peak Veterans Council, all of the Veterans Organizations in the surrounding five counties, and the United Veterans Committee of Colorado.
We have made personal contact with, and have carried on letter-writing campaigns to the serving Secretaries of Veterans Affairs for these past ten years. To date, we do not consider any of the responses from the VA to be satisfactory. They appear mostly to be boiler plate responses, written to protect internal VA agendas.
Politically, working in concert with our past and present elected Congressional and Senatorial representatives we have helped write and support House and Senate Bills which specifically address the establishment of a National Veterans Cemetery in the Pikes Peak Region to serve southern Colorado’s Veterans. The present House Bill, written by Congressmen Salazar and Lamborn passed in the House, and was sent to the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, where, much to our chagrin, neither the Senate Bill nor the House Bill have been stymied by Senator Akaka. Letter writing campaigns to him have not brought any results, as he has not responded to us, and has not placed the Bills on the Committee agenda for discussion and passage.
Locally, we studied the VA regulations, we have performed due diligence studies regarding site selection, land requirements and acquisition, water and environmental requirements, we have done on-the-ground surveys of potential sites, and we have written a comprehensive plan entitled “A National Veterans Cemetery For The Pikes Peak Region”.
For your information and use, here is a copy of the 2008 Pikes Peak Veterans Cemetery Committee’s planning document. It contains color maps and photos of the various undeveloped sites, and most importantly a matrix (Figure 4.1) that contains the Committee’s ranking of the ten most viable sites. Our conclusions and recommendations are contained in Section Five. The Appendices contain 2000 Census data, and the VA Fact Sheet on creating a Veterans Cemetery.
All sites included in this plan are more than 75-miles from Fort Logan, however, if this requirement is waived to move the proposed cemetery closer to Denver, we would recommend it be sited along I-25 on the Air Force Academy. Of course, The Commanders of Fort Carson and The Air Force Academy are precluded from making any commitments to us concerning use of DoD land, but since it is already federally owned, we know a Veterans Cemetery established in the installation buffer zones can be authorized, and can be used to protect against encroachment on these military installations.
In order to provide sufficient burial space for Colorado’s Veterans in the future, and to fairly meet the needs of southern Colorado’s Veterans, plans for the Pikes Peak Veterans Cemetery must get underway immediately. Please do not wait until Ft. Logan is full before establishing a new Veterans Cemetery in Colorado. Use the plan we have already produced and provided to you as a starting point. And finally, please address the need to move the pending Bills for a Veteran Cemetery in the Pikes Peak Region through Senator Akaka’s Committee for Congressional passage.