With four urns in the cold ground, the Pikes Peak National Cemetery held its somber opening Thursday as the planned final resting place for generations of veterans.
“These are hallowed grounds,” the Rev. Bob Kwiatkowski said before the cremated remains of a Marine, sailor, airman and soldier were laid to rest.
The cemetery, off Drennan Road east of the Colorado Springs Airport, will open to the public starting Friday from dawn to dusk.
To inaugurate the cemetery for the opening, someone had to be first in the community of white headstones. Leaders wanted to make sure that no service had sole claim to the honor.
Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Charles Joyner, Army Pfc. James Grant, Navy Seaman Joseph Romero and Marine Corps Master Sgt. Kurt Krause went in together. They would have been joined by a Coast Guard representative, but in land-locked Colorado Springs, none were ready to join the honored dead.
Grant waited the longest for his place. A Vietnam veteran, he died in 2007 and his family waited to put his urn in the veterans cemetery even as Congress argued over its future.
Assigned to Fort Carson after a tour in Vietnam, Grant had a vibrant personality and managed to pack a lot in his 59 years by moving at light speed.
“We met and married in a week,” June Grant said of her late husband. “He was just an amazing guy.”
Romero died in 2013, just shy of his 63rd birthday.
His family says he would have liked the gathering. Romero, a San Luis Valley rancher, was fond of parties.
His son, Joseph Romero Jr., said the family waited to put their father to rest in the company of heroes.
“He’s finally resting in peace,” he said.
Melanie Joyner said the family kept her father’s ashes at her home after his death in 2014 at the age of 78. They wanted someplace special for a man whose generosity was matched by his good humor.
When the Department of Veterans Affairs offered Joyner the chance to be one of the first honored at the new cemetery, the family jumped at the chance.
Melanie Joyner said it will be a place to put flowers and remember the happy times, while acknowledging her father’s 26 years of service to his nation.
“We’re honored to take part,” she said.
Krause, a loving father and grandfather, took great pride in being a Marine.
“He was the best Marine there ever was,” his wife, Charlotte Krause, said.
Krause died at 74 in January 2017. The family says he had boundless hugs and smiles — “he was the life of the party.”
But the precision of the military service, which included a pair of rigid Marines in the honor guard would have pleased Krause.
“It is a grand closing,” Charlotte Krause said.
Cemetery director Paul LaGrange said 300 “cases” of veterans who want to claim their right to be buried there are in process. An additional 100 families have asked for the remains of veterans to be moved from the Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver to the new location in Colorado Springs.
Any veteran who served honorably can be buried in the National Cemetery as the final installment of their VA benefits.
Getting a cemetery for El Paso County’s more than 80,000 veterans took decades. A group spearheaded by retired Army Col. Victor Fernandez got help from lawmakers including Colorado Springs Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn to get it approved.
“There were times that I wasn’t sure I would see this day,” Fernandez said Thursday.
The first phase opened Thursday and is part of a development that could house up to 13,000 veterans’ graves.
The 374-acre cemetery is planned to meet the final needs of veterans in the region for the next century.
“A lot went into this day,” LaGrange said.
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240 Twitter: @xroederx