A 10-year journey came to an end on Memorial Day as hundreds of Yellowstone County residents witnessed the dedication of the Yellowstone National Cemetery in Laurel - the first national cemetery in Montana.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said during his keynote speech that “no one person gets anything done” and the story of the cemetery’s formation proves his point.
The journey began in 2004 when it became evident that the administrator of the Montana Veterans Affairs Division had no intention of building a state cemetery in Yellowstone County.
Burt Gigoux, the current chairman of the Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery, said, “This obstacle served to steepen my resolve. It pushed me to build not only a veterans cemetery, but a national cemetery. So in a strange sense, we all owe some thanks to the Montana Veterans Affairs Division because we wouldn’t be dedicating a national cemetery without their opposition – we’d be dedicating a state cemetery!”
Shortly after the state cemetery idea was rejected, Gigoux began to work toward a goal of a county cemetery along with County Commissioner Bill Kennedy. The two of them formed a steering committee in 2005 that supervised the project.
Kennedy had to get state statutes changed in order for the county cemetery to be a reality. First, a law had to be changed in order to allow the county to have a veterans cemetery. Later, another law had to be altered so that Yellowstone County had the authority to limit use of the cemetery to veterans and spouses.
In November 2006, 61 percent of Yellowstone County voters supported a mill levy that allowed work on the county cemetery to begin.
The groundbreaking for the county cemetery was on Memorial Day 2008 and it was dedicated on Veterans Day of that same year. In December, the first veteran was laid to rest in the Yellowstone County Veteran’s Cemetery.
But this wasn’t the end of the journey.
In July 2010, the steering committee applied to give the Yellowstone County Veterans Cemetery national status. However, the application faced a big hurdle - Yellowstone County did not meet the Veterans Administration specification that 70,000 veterans had to live within a 75-mile radius of the burial grounds.
Kennedy asked Tester for help, and the senator created legislation that would designate eight cemeteries in rural areas. Yellowstone National Cemetery was the first of these to be dedicated.
Already, 250 veterans are buried in the 10-acre cemetery, and 100 more will soon join them.
On Tuesday, the cemetery on Buffalo Trail Road started accepting veteran burials at no charge to families – one of the perks of being buried in a national cemetery.
According to Congressman Steve Daines, this no-charge burial plan also means that many homeless veterans can find a final resting place.
“For many years the VA would not allow for homeless veterans to be buried because many didn’t have a family that cared,” Daines said. “But the VA forgot that these people had thousands of brothers and sisters in the armed forces that cared.”
Steve Muro, the under secretary for memorial affairs, said that the formation of a national cemetery in Yellowstone County was important because nearly 12 percent of Montanans are veterans. This is the highest percentage of veterans per state in the entire country.
While the ceremony on Monday was a celebration of all the hard work it took to make the cemetery what it is today, the numerous speakers were careful to turn the attention away from themselves and onto the veterans – both living and dead – who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
“The veterans buried here – and those who will be laid to rest long after we depart – were prepared to give their lives for the country they loved and the freedoms they stood for,” Tester said. “And now, all Americans can celebrate the service and sacrifice of those who make these grounds their final resting place.”
Muro asked, “How do we repay our soldiers’ sacrifice? Today is the start. We can honor our veterans by giving them this final resting place.
“And we can bring our children and grandchildren here and let the headstones tell them a story of bravery and sacrifice.”