Originally created 02/08/98

Cemetery still in future



In early 1991, as war raged in the Persian Gulf, 7,000 dogwood and crape myrtle seedlings were planted at a site in Milledgeville.

The baby trees formed the borders of a new state veterans cemetery, a final resting place for the state's war dead and former service members. Seven years later, as the United States prepares for another possible conflict with Iraq, those trees are taller, older, stronger.

But the trees, which surround 142 acres of woodland deeded to the Georgia Department of Veterans Service nearly a decade ago, are still all that exists of the state's grand veterans cemetery.

No tiny American flags are planted in the ground to memorialize loved ones. No monuments have been built to honor the state's half-million veterans. There's not even a futuresite-of sign, the kind every fledgling shopping center gets.

"It still sits there undeveloped," said Len Glass, administrative operations manager for the Georgia Department of Veterans Service.

If there were a sign announcing this plot of land, it would likely be a question mark: Will the Georgia General Assembly ever appropriate money to build this cemetery? If legislators give the cemetery a nod this session, will the Department of Veterans Affairs give matching funds for it?

If the cemetery is not built, where will Georgia's veterans and their families be buried once space runs out in the state's two national cemeteries? Will veterans like John F. Gwizdak find a final resting place beside their comrades?

"If it was up to me, I would choose to be buried in a military cemetery for the simple reason when you go to the final bivouac, why not go on that bivouac with your comrades?" said Mr. Gwizdak, a Vietnam veteran who serves as the adjutant and quartermaster for the Georgia Veterans of Foreign Wars.

When his time comes, Vietnam veteran Johnnie Blackmon of Hephzibah will be buried at his family plot in Burke County., Ga. But it's still important to Mr. Blackmon that a state-run veterans cemetery be built for his fellow GIs, especially those who cannot afford their own burial plot.

"It's a right of the veterans, a right that we should have," said the state AMVETS commander.

As yet, there are still no clear answers for these veterans.

In Atlanta, legislators are working on the state's fiscal 1998 budget, weighing hundreds of agency requests against what money is actually available. Among those is a supplemental budget request from Veterans' Commissioner Pete Wheeler requesting $686,260 for the Milledgeville cemetery.

The state share, along with $556,260 in matching construction funds from the VA's State Cemetery Grant Program, would be enough to landscape 17 acres, create 1,000 burial sites, erect a cemetery entrance and construct maintenance, administrative and committal buildings.

Eventually, 11,000 more burial sites and a chapel would be added to the Georgia War Veterans Memorial Cemetery in four phases.

For nearly 10 years, the land has belonged to the veterans, deeded to them from the State Forestry Commission in December 1989.

After the Department of Veterans Service obtained the land, a feasibility study was conducted to see how much it would cost to convert the forest to a cemetery.

The original price tag of $2.1 million to develop all 142 acres was rejected by the General Assembly in 1991 as too costly.

In 1994, a second feasibility study was conducted, and the cost was whittled to $1.2 million for 17 acres and 1,000 initial grave sites -- the current plan.

The leaner plan was rejected in 1996, a year when governmental agencies were asked to restrict spending on new projects as part of governor's program of redirection, Mr. Glass said.

But things are better in 1998. The state has almost $600 million in supplemental money to spend on projects like the cemetery.

The House of Representatives approved funding the cemetery last week, and now the state Senate must vote on the measure.

By most estimates, there are about 685,000 veterans and retired military personnel living in Georgia, all of them eligible for burial in a military cemetery and perpetual care from the government. But burial space for them is slowly but surely running out.

The Marietta National Cemetery, one of two burial grounds exclusively for service members in the state, has been closed to internments since 1978, and there is no room to expand it.

There are 7,300 remaining grave sites for veterans and their families at the Andersonville National Cemetery and Historic Civil War Prison Site, operated by the Department of the Interior, With an average of 90 burials a year, that's enough to last until 2049, according to cemetery director Amanda Rhodes.

Many veterans who live on the eastern edge of the state, however, don't want to spend eternity at Andersonville, far away from family and friends.

Others don't like Andersonville's status as a national park. Still others can't forget the history of the infamous Civil War prison camp where 13,000 Union prisoners died.

and I don't want to be there," said Marvin Myers, president of the Georgia Vietnam Veterans Alliance, referring to the 1996 Turner Network Television miniseries Andersonville. "It doesn't have a good name."

Like the veterans, top-ranking officials at Fort Gordon have also recognized the need for another military cemetery in Georgia.

The fort, along with the Georgia Military Affairs Coordinating Committee, recently offered land so the Department of Veterans Affairs could build a national cemetery.

The VA will not consider building or expanding other cemeteries until four new ones open, so the Fort Gordon proposal will be shelved for at least a year, said Rick Arndt, a spokesman for the VA National Cemetery System.

With a national cemetery at Fort Gordon unlikely, Georgia's veterans' service organizations are using all their influence to finally transform the Milledgeville woodland into hallowed ground.

On Tuesday, the leaders of the VFW, AMVETS, American Legion, Vietnam Veterans' Alliance and Military Order of the Purple Heart gathered in Macon to coordinate lobbying efforts.

Mr. Gwizdak said legislators should be reminded they were elected as representatives of a democratic government because of the sacrifices of veterans.

"The right to vote was given to them by us," he said. "We've had some criticism of `Why do the veterans want their own cemetery?' My question to them is `Why do you get up in freedom every morning?"'