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VA approves $5.7M for cemetery at Fort Stanton

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has approved $5.7 million for a new veterans cemetery at Fort Stanton in Lincoln County, and a groundbreaking for the state-owned cemetery is planned for Veterans Day, officials said Monday.

Plans for four new veterans cemeteries have been underway since 2013. Because the state has only two national cemeteries – one in Santa Fe and the other at Fort Bayard – some families had to drive great distances to bury and honor deceased veterans. Veterans living within 75 miles of Fort Bliss National Cemetery in El Paso can also be buried there.

Last year, the Governor’s Office and the New Mexico Department of Veterans’ Services proposed one cemetery each in Gallup, Fort Stanton, Carlsbad and Angel Fire, and the state Legislature approved $600,000 to be used to match federal funding.

Although plans called for the Gallup cemetery to be built first, Alan Martinez, deputy secretary for the Veterans’ Services Department, said Monday the Gallup site had to be relocated, which pushed Fort Stanton to the top of the list.

It’s likely both cemeteries will begin construction within a year, Martinez said.

The federal grant will pay for a 650-gravesite cemetery, including roads, an administration and maintenance facility, a facility to house urns of ashes, landscaping, and other supporting infrastructure at Fort Stanton.

Fort Stanton, built in 1855 as a base for military campaigns against the Mescalero Apaches, served as a military fortification until 1896. It was later used as a tuberculosis hospital for Merchant Marines, a POW camp, a school for the mentally disabled, a women’s prison, and a juvenile drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. It was acquired by a nonprofit in 2007 and is operated as a museum and historic visitors center. It has been a state monument since 2007.

“Our veterans … deserve a final resting place that is close to home – no matter where they live in our state,” Gov. Susana Martinez said in a news release. “Today’s announcement gets us one step closer to establishing more local veterans cemeteries throughout New Mexico so that families won’t have to drive hours upon hours to visit the gravesites of their loved ones.”

Past efforts by veterans groups to get additional national cemeteries were stymied by a VA regulation requiring that a minimum of 100,000 veterans live within a 75-mile radius of any proposed national cemetery site. Because no communities outside of the Albuquerque metro area meet that criterion, the state began the effort to build and maintain the proposed cemeteries. More than two-thirds of the state’s estimated 170,700 veterans live farther than 75 miles from the existing cemeteries, according to the Governor’s Office.

State officials have said they will continue seeking VA approval and funding for the Carlsbad and Angel Fire veterans cemeteries.