SANTA FE – New Mexico is currently home to roughly 178,000 veterans and only two veterans cemeteries.
Gov. Susana Martinez wants to change that, rolling out a plan Tuesday that calls for as many as 10 new veterans cemeteries to be built across New Mexico on state or city-owned land.
“New Mexico is an extremely large state, and the families of our veterans are often forced to travel a long way to honor and to grieve for their loved ones,” Martinez told a news conference Tuesday in Santa Fe.
The location of the new cemeteries has not been determined – the site decisions would be made in the coming months and would be based on population and need.
Either three or four of the regional cemeteries would be built initially, Martinez said. If the program is deemed a success, as many as six additional cemeteries could be built later.
While federal funding will be requested to cover the bulk of the project’s cost, the Republican governor said she plans to ask the Legislature during the 2014 legislative session for between $390,000 and $640,000 in startup money for the project.
“It is asking almost nothing for those of you who have served and continue to serve our country,” Martinez told veterans in the audience.
New Mexico’s two existing national cemeteries are in Santa Fe and Fort Bayard, near Silver City. There is also a third national cemetery nearby at Fort Bliss, in El Paso.
Previous attempts by veterans groups to have additional national cemeteries built in New Mexico have been unsuccessful, but Martinez said the state-owned model that is being pursued would not be subject to the same stringent criteria that new national cemeteries face.
The new cemeteries would be owned by the state but would be maintained with help from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said state Veterans’ Services Secretary Tim Hale.
Hale, whose agency will head up the initiative, will start meeting with mayors and other local officials this fall, Martinez said.
The governor, whose father died in December 2012 and was buried at Fort Bliss National Cemetery, described the idea of regional cemeteries as a blessing for surviving family members.
“It’s important that the survivors of our veterans have easy access to honor those that have died and have a short distance to drive to be able to do that,” Martinez told reporters.
“Right now, they either choose to bury their veterans in a private cemetery or they rarely visit because it can be a four- or five-hour trip,” she said.