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After a long wait, WNY veterans will get their own cemetery

WASHINGTON — To veterans from Western New York, it's the graveyard that took an eternity.

But finally, nine years after the project was first proposed, all the land has been pieced together for the Western New York National Cemetery, the region's first resting place specifically for veterans, in the town of Pembroke in Genesee County.

That means construction of the cemetery, sprawling over 269 acres of rolling countryside, could begin as soon as this year. And if everything works out according to plan, deceased veterans from the region could begin to be buried there, near their comrades in arms, a year or so later.

"With this final hurdle cleared, I urge the VA to stick to a swift construction timetable and take the steps to begin the Western New York Veterans Cemetery construction this year," Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, said Monday. "Making this cemetery a reality has been one of my top priorities, and now the VA has a clear path to begin construction."

The path to this point, though, has been anything but clear. The Department of Veterans Affairs spent four years picking a site for the cemetery. Then it took another four years to put the three parcels of land together into the site the VA wanted – largely because a gas line ran through the middle of two of them and had to be moved.

Local veterans are thrilled, though, that all the obstacles had finally been overcome.

"Today's news is just beyond my expression," said Patrick W. Welch, a longtime Buffalo veterans advocate. "I was beginning to think it wasn't ever going to happen."

It's easy to see why local veterans thought that way.

It took the VA two years to zero in on three possible sites for the cemetery: one in Lancaster and two in Pembroke.

Then it took the VA two more years to decide on the final location, at the intersection of Indian Falls Road and Route 77 in Pembroke.

The agency acquired the largest piece of land it wanted, a 132-acre parcel, in 2014. But the VA could not start construction on the cemetery until it secured two other parcels – one 60 acres and one 77 acres. That's because those parcels were needed for the cemetery's main entrance to be built along Indian Falls Road, rather than the busier Route 77 corridor.

The owners of both properties were willing to sell, but one thing held up the final transaction for years.

"Everybody thought that a gas line going through the middle of the cemetery was probably not a good idea," said Duane Schmigel, the Pembroke produce farmer who sold the 77-acre parcel to the federal government.

Moving that gas line proved to be like moving a mountain.

"There were so many different government agencies that had to approve it, it's hard to believe," Schmigel said. "There was no reluctance on anybody's part to do this. Everybody made quite an effort to get it done, be it government or private business."

Finally, after a host of government approvals and an Environmental Impact Statement, the gas line was moved to the perimeter of the cemetery property, and the VA bought the properties for a sum that has not yet been disclosed.

Officials from the company that owns the pipeline, U.S. Gypsum, and the VA could not be reached for comment on Monday.

But veterans who were involved in the cemetery saga were happy to talk about delays before the project's big move forward.

When the VA began planning the local cemetery in 2010, it also moved forward on about a half-dozen other new cemeteries in parts of the country that it considered underserved. All of those other cemeteries were built before the VA even acquired all the land for the graveyard in Pembroke, said James B. Neider, a longtime veterans advocate from Stafford, just east of Batavia.

"For us, this just took a horrendous length of time," Neider said.

That meant that most families of local veterans who died either had to bury their loved ones either in a civilian resting place or in the nearest VA cemetery in Bath, in Steuben County, about 100 miles southeast of Buffalo.

"We've needed this for a long time," Neider said of the Pembroke cemetery. "The drive to Bath is especially long for the people from the Buffalo area."

The new cemetery will also serve veterans in the Rochester area, where between 1,200 and 1,300 veterans die every year, said Ken Moore of Hilton, formerly the long-serving president of the Rochester chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America.

And while statistics on veteran deaths from metro Buffalo were not immediately available, it's likely that the number of vets who die there annually is greater than that in Rochester, given that Buffalo is slightly larger.

The Pembroke site is about 30 miles from Buffalo and 48 miles from Rochester. It is expected to serve both Western New York and parts of the Finger Lakes region, home to about 96,000 veterans and their family members.

“This cemetery's construction guarantees Western New York’s veterans will have the proper burial, at a site close to the homes, families, and the very communities they dedicated their lives to defend and serve," said Schumer, who has been pushing for construction of the cemetery since 2009.

Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence Republican whose district includes the cemetery site, was equally ecstatic about the fact that the project was finally moving forward.

"Having the Western New York National Veterans Cemetery in Pembroke will mean a great deal to local veterans and their loved ones," said Collins, vowing, as Schumer did, to press for the cemetery's quick completion.

It's still unclear when the new VA cemetery will be officially open, and a lot depends on how soon construction can begin.

The cemetery's design has been completed, which is why Schumer said construction could start this year.

According to the VA's cemetery development timeline, construction usually takes 24 to 30 months, although early-use burial areas become available about a year after construction begins. Congress has already set aside $36 million for construction of the project.

Welch, the veterans advocate who currently serves as director of military programs for Higher Ground New York, said the cemetery is hugely important to veterans for the most personal of reasons.

"I think it's a phenomenon that a lot of people who haven't served in the military don't quite understand, but a lot of veterans want to be buried in a place where you'll be surrounded by veterans," Welch said. "The fact that I'll be in a special place, surrounded by people who've also worn the cloth, is very important. It's nice to know that you'll be surrounded by people who shared your common experiences."

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