Nearly two decades after a local coalition began its push for a national cemetery, more than 80,000 Pikes Peak region veterans will soon have a final place to call home.
Ground will be broken soon on the Pikes Peak National Cemetery near the Colorado Springs airport after an effort that brought together unlikely allies and a few circumstances that backers of the cemetery attribute to having God on their side.
The 374-acre site is on former ranchland that borders Jimmy Camp Creek. The rolling hills offer sweeping views of Pikes Peak and Cheyenne Mountain, and will be landscaped to house pristine memorials and even a duck pond. The white gravestones will be lined in precise military formation.
The first phase to accommodate 13,000 burials will open next year.
Retired Army Col. Vic Fernandez can't wait.
"I think God is keeping me alive so I can be buried there," the Vietnam veteran said.
Fernandez is the last living founder of the Pikes Peak National Cemetery Committee, which formed in 1999.
The group wanted to address a basic problem: Colorado's biggest pool of veterans is in Colorado Springs but the state's sole Department of Veterans Affairs Cemetery is in Denver. Fort Logan National Cemetery is nearly a two-hour drive with traffic on most days, and is sometimes unreachable in winter when storms rage on Monument hill, Fernandez said.
But the idea of a national cemetery in Colorado Springs nearly foundered in the face of VA bureaucracy and regulations. The agency had a rule that forbid a new cemetery to cover a community within 75 miles of Fort Logan, leaving area veterans no option except a lengthy hearse ride after death.
"In order to get anything done we had to get congressional approval," Fernandez said.
The group went shopping for a Colorado lawmaker willing to take up their cause. It was a search that would last seven years, the colonel said.
Then a sympathetic candidate came along. U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Springs Republican, met with the cemetery group before his 2006 election.
Son of a World War II veteran, Lamborn understood what it meant to have a final resting place for those who have served. "I made it my highest priority," Lamborn said.
But getting Lamborn on board wasn't a perfect solution. The rookie lawmaker had little power on Capitol Hill. The Democrats took the reins of power in the House as Lamborn arrived in 2007.
The wishes of GOP newcomers weren't a priority, Lamborn said.
In the House, most lawmakers at that point would figure out a bit of horse-trading. You give me a cemetery and I'll give you a highway bridge. But even that wouldn't suffice.
"I had nothing to give," Lamborn said. "I was a freshman in the minority. I had to let the cause speak for itself."
Lamborn, who has repeatedly been named the House's most conservative congressman, also needed liberal allies.
He sought out a pair of brothers from one of the state's bluest Democratic families. Ken Salazar in the Senate and his brother John, representing Pueblo in the House.
The Republican, not welcome at most Democratic gatherings, worked to enlist House colleague John Salazar, a Democrat from the San Luis Valley.
"He agreed with me after some persuasion," Lamborn said.
To do that, he made the cemetery a Pueblo thing. Pueblo is proud of its veterans. The city calls itself "Home of Heroes" for its four Medal of Honor recipients.
The committee and Lamborn looked south of Colorado Springs for a cemetery site, someplace that could easily hold Pueblo's honored dead.
"It was a compromise everyone could live with," Lamborn said.
Lamborn amended his measure to call for a southern Colorado veteran's cemetery. With Democratic help, it passed.
Lamborn credits his first victory and still-proudest moment in the House to persistence.
"I was the squeaky wheel," he said.
But an alliance that spanned the partisan divide wasn't enough to change minds at the VA. The agency stood by its 75-mile rule, Congress be damned.
And then, Lamborn and Fernandez say, a higher power intervened.
Lamborn worked with the veterans committee to wrangle a field hearing in Colorado Springs to let Fernandez and others bring their concerns directly to VA brass. It was set for May 2, 2008.
The VA brass, led by Undersecretary William Tuerk arrived in Denver obdurate in their devotion to the 75 mile rule.
As they drove south, the first flakes fell around Castle Rock. They hit Monument hill in a blizzard.
The committee heard convincing arguments from Fernandez and others. Widows complained about the tough trip to Denver for mourners. But the storm VA bosses crawled through on Interstate 25 was the best evidence, Lamborn and Fernandez said.
"God works in great ways," Fernandez said.
The first contract for the cemetery off Drennan Road east of the airport was approved this fall. That makes the project a reality for the first time.
Lamborn, son of Robert Lamborn who enlisted in the Army in 1942 and served three and a half years in the military, working and fighting in nine countries, including Malta, Sicily, Corsica and France, says it's a place men like his dad deserve.
"It's appropriate to give the highest sense of dignity to those who served," Lamborn said.
Fernandez says it's a place where he can reunite with his comrades in the afterlife. He wants to rejoin the artillery battery he led in Vietnam when he goes.
"Those 200 draftees, they were good people," he said.
And thanks to determination and chance, Fernandez said he'll get his wish.
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240