WASHINGTON – Veterans in Western New York may be happy they will finally get their own cemetery, but to hear Charles T. Pinck tell it, the graveyard will be missing something important.
The veterans cemetery in Pembroke won't bear the name of William J. Donovan, a Buffalo-born World War I hero and founder of the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency. And Pinck, president of the OSS Society – which works to preserve the memory of the nation's fledgling spy agency – isn't happy about it.
Pinck said he thought for sure the cemetery would be named for Donovan, given who proposed the idea in the first place.
"We were very pleased when Senator Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, held a press conference several years ago to announce his support for naming the cemetery in General Donovan’s honor," Pinck said.
Sure enough, nearly four years ago, Schumer – now Senate minority leader – said: " 'Wild Bill' Donovan is a true Western New York hero, and I cannot think of any better way to commemorate his life, and honor our region's veterans, than by naming the new Western New York Veterans Cemetery after 'Wild Bill.' "
It seems Schumer got a little ahead of himself. Some local veterans objected to naming the cemetery for Donovan, saying it shouldn't be named for any one veteran. And the Department of Veterans Affairs then decided in 2016 it would be better to call the graveyard the Western New York National Cemetery.
"According to a source in Buffalo, the decision not to name the cemetery in honor of General Donovan was made by the Veterans Administration and Senator Schumer did not oppose it," Pinck said.
Asked about what happened, Schumer's spokesman, Jason Kaplan, said Schumer's efforts were directed elsewhere.
“Senator Schumer is focused on getting all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed so this much-needed Western New York veterans cemetery can get up and running as soon as possible," Kaplan said. "Once the whole of the Western New York community develops a broad and deep consensus on the naming, of course Senator Schumer will champion what they choose.”
Schumer didn't push Donovan's name too hard for a reason, said Patrick W. Welch, a longtime Buffalo veterans advocate who fought for the cemetery's construction for years.
"There's a significant number of veterans who don't want it named after any one veteran," said Welch, who himself supported naming the cemetery for Donovan before changing course after hearing from other vets.
Welch doesn't fault Schumer for backtracking on the name for another reason, too. For years now, Schumer has been pushing to get the cemetery built despite long delays over land acquisition.
"We must credit Senator Schumer for becoming our champion on this cemetery," Welch said in an email to other veterans advocates last week. "If not for him, the veteran population requirements would have stood in place and we would not be getting our own National Veterans Cemetery. If not for him, the funding would not have happened. So no matter your politics, we do need to thank him."
Schumer announced last week that land acquisition had finally been completed for the 269-acre cemetery at the intersection of Indian Falls Road and State Route 77 in the Town of Pembroke. That means construction should be able to begin later this year, with the first gravesites becoming available a year or so later.
Pinck stressed that if the cemetery isn't going to be named for Donovan, the Buffalo area ought to find a way to honor him. Donovan lost his only local honor when the Donovan State Office Building was converted into a Courtyard by Marriott Hotel and offices several years ago.
"Every time we have tried to honor General Donovan, one of America’s greatest patriots and most highly decorated soldiers, our efforts have been thwarted," Pinck said.