A few days ago, I attended the Pikes Peak National Cemetery dedication ceremony. Memorial Day weekend is a perfect time to present the nation's newest national cemetery.
Our very own Pikes Peak National Cemetery is large - 374 acres. It is expected to serve more than 95,000 veterans, their spouses and eligible family members over the next 100 years here in southern Colorado.
Burial in a national cemetery is an honor reserved for all members of the armed forces who were honorably discharged. The burial benefits are provided at no cost to the family.
May I confide in you? Ordinarily, I will do anything to avoid cemeteries. I felt some trepidation going to one.
And then I saw the flags. The beloved Stars and Stripes swayed in the breeze. Other flags, representing our military branches, could be seen about every 10 feet as we drove in. Each colorful and stately piece of fabric waved its welcome with a grinning veteran holding each pole in place.
And the vets! Some were in uniform. Others were in biker gear, (like Harley Davidson). Some were female, sporting jeans and tank tops. You saw a little of everything but the same American pride expressed in the dazzling smiles of the vets.
I had to join in and smile, too.
The site is empty. No grass, no flowers, just lots of dirt. Undaunted, I pressed on toward tents temporarily erected to receive guests.
In the VIP tent, I was introduced to the founder of the Pikes Peak National Veterans Cemetery Committee - Vic Fernandez. Vic is credited as being the driving force behind this important undertaking. The West Point graduate (1959) and retired Army colonel has devoted 20 years to this vision.
He pushed for this "resting place", as he sagely refers to the $32 million project. I asked Fernanadez his secret to success and he said, "Kick a--!" Then he added, "Be nice but pushy."
In the main tent, local television media personality and emcee Dianne Derby introduced us to those on the dais who helped to get the national cemetery approved here in southern Colorado. The list was extensive and bipartisan.
Congressional District 5 Rep. Doug Lamborn took us back to 2006 when the idea was brought to him. Getting the cemetery was the first piece of legislation that he introduced in Congress. Pueblo's John Salazar, also in Congress at the time, reached across the aisle to co-sponsor the bill.
When asked about finally seeing the positive results of this effort he said, "This is a community that honors its vets. It's fitting that we are the 136th national cemetery in the county." Lamborn gave credit for the $32 million appropriated by Congress to Sen. Michael Bennet. He praised him profusely for navigating the culture of D.C. to bring the funds home.
Sen. Bennet also spoke saying that Coloradans get along much better than the folks in D.C. and that he was very glad to be home. But he downplayed his huge accomplishment. Instead, he praised Fernandez and the cemetery committee saying "A community of vets came together with a vision for a lasting resting place. Because of their tenacity and perseverance they have created a resting place that Colorado can be proud of."
Remarks were also presented by the director of the cemetery, Paul LaGrange, who feels a personal sense of mission to take care of veterans and their families. Wrapping up the presentation of words was the under secretary for memorial affairs, Randy C. Reeves, who told the crowd, "This will be a place of honor, learning, fellowship and yes, a place of healing."
I believe him.
The dedication was a day to remember. The crowd was standing room only, at least 600. It was attentive and appreciative.
Both parties came together for the common good. Ego was set aside as citizens, lawmakers, government administrators and others collaborated for the benefit of our area veterans. Language was civil and uplifting. Our region can only gain from such unity.
This dedication was not politics as usual. It was politics as it should be.
Rachel Stovall is a longtime community advocate and organizer. Also a fundraising, media and marketing consultant, Stovall is most known for singing with her dance band Phat Daddy and the Phat Horn Doctors.