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Construction of national veterans cemetery in Pembroke expected in 2017

BATAVIA – It could take up to a year and a half before ground is broken, but a national cemetery for veterans is coming to Western New York.

That was the message that officials of the Veterans Administration conveyed to about 100 veterans, spouses, funeral directors, business owners and others during a 90-minute session Thursday at the Batavia VA Medical Center.

“We are going to build a place that meets national shrine standards, a world-class cemetery,” said Glenn Madderom, representing the VA Cemetery Development and Improvement Service. “Truly, this is a special place.”

Madderom spoke about the role of the cemetery agency, which oversees 134 national cemeteries across the United States, and the burial benefits for eligible veterans and their families.

Following his presentation, Mark Tillotson, an engineer with the VA, outlined the specifics of the plan to build a 132-acre veterans’ graveyard on Indian Falls Road in the Town of Pembroke.

The VA purchased the property at 1232 Indian Falls Road, just north of Thruway Exit 48A, in May 2014 for $625,000.

Madderom said that the final cost of the Western New York cemetery has yet to be determined because engineers and architects have just completed the design phase.

He did say that “typical” national cemeteries have a price tag of $15 million to $35 million.

Cemetery drawings depict a site featuring a walled front entrance, administration building, maintenance building, memorial walkway, committal shelters, columbarium (a building with niches for funeral urns to be stored), public information center and restrooms.

Roads, landscaping, irrigation and utilities are also part of the planning.

Although Madderom said that the project is “high on people’s radar,” construction will not begin until Congress releases money.

James R. Metcalfe II, a Nunda native who is expected to serve as director of the Western New York site, said he hopes that construction will begin in the spring of 2017.

Metcalfe is currently director of the Indiantown Gap National Cemetery in Annville, Pa.

The cemetery will be built in five phases, with the initial phase resulting in “the first 10 years of burial being turned over at the end of construction,” according to Tillotson, who served in the Army for 28 years,

The first burials – the cemetery provides plots for both casketed and cremated remains – will take place a year after the start of construction. The complete build-out of the first phase will take about 33 months. All told, the cemetery will be built to accommodate 60 years of burials.

Western New York was targeted for a national cemetery location after the federal government realized there were about 96,000 veterans and family members between Buffalo and Rochester. It is one of five new cemeteries – the others are in Omaha, Neb.; Southern Colorado; Melbourne, Fla.; and Tallahassee, Fla. – and will be the sixth national cemetery open for first interments in New York.

Madderom said that no-cost benefits to the deceased veteran’s family include a gravesite with dignified burial, opening and closing of the grave, grave liner, perpetual care of the gravesite, headstone, memorial certificate, U.S. flag and military funeral honors (by request).

He noted that the process has been streamlined for eligible veterans to be buried at national cemeteries.

“All families need to do is show us the deceased’s discharge papers,” he said.

Those eligible for national cemetery burial are as follows:

• Servicemen and women who die in active duty.

• Servicemen and women who are honorably discharged.

• National Guard and reservists for 20 years of qualifying service and are entitled to retired pay.

• Spouses, minor children and certain parents.

The remains of those buried before the national cemetery is completed could be transferred to the new cemetery, but families would be responsible for disinterment and transportation expenses, Madderom said in response to questions from Ronald P. Konieczny, director of J. Leonard McAndrew Funeral Home in Batavia.

The national cemetery also will accept urns from funeral homes or from private citizens to go into the columbarium, he said.

Konieczny, a non-combat medic during the Vietnam War and past commander of American Legion Post 332 in Batavia, said a push for a national cemetery in Western New York “should have started 25 years ago.”

“They’re a little late. Many of our World War II vets are gone,” he said. “Taking nothing away from those who served in Korea or Vietnam, but those are the soldiers who went through the brunt of the hell and fire.

“Now, they are in their 90s and many are gone – and their wives, too. They are very deserving (to be in a national cemetery) but the closest one is in Bath, 100 miles away.”