FARMINGTON — New Mexico Cabinet Secretary Timothy Hale was here Monday to get support for a plan that would locate more veterans cemeteries in the state, shortening the traveling distance for tens of thousands of veterans.
The New Mexico Department of Veterans' Services announced plans to build four small, 3- to 5-acre cemeteries in select areas in New Mexico.
San Juan County has the fifth largest veteran population in the state with 9,408 identified veterans. But the nearest federal veterans cemetery is in Santa Fe, which is about a 200-mile drive. The department would like to reduce that distance to 75 miles.
The other two federal veterans cemeteries where New Mexico's veterans often are buried are Fort Bayard National Cemetery in Silver City and Fort Bliss National Cemetery in El Paso, Tex.
Each of the smaller cemeteries would cost roughly $1.5 million dollars. The department hopes to secure 10 percent of that cost -- $600,000 -- as seed money that will guarantee a match by the Veterans Affairs Department to be used to staff and maintain the cemeteries. The funding would have to be approved by the state Legislature.
Hale, with the state's veterans' administration, was joined by Lt. Gov. John Sanchez at the Farmington Civic Center for a town hall meeting. Sanchez said the project is supported by Gov. Susana Martinez.
Sanchez said it is imperative to ensure military families have access to suitable resting places that meet the highest federal standards.
"The need is more urgent than ever. This is why we are here," Sanchez said, reading from prepared remarks. "I urge all in San Juan County today to reach out and contact your senators and state representatives and let them know you support this project."
Hale's and Sanchez's stop in Farmington came at the end of a tour to solicit input on where the proposed cemeteries should be located. They have visited more than a dozen communities since the first town hall in August in Grants. The two held a town hall earlier Monday in Gallup.
"Right now, we're in a first stage to hear from veterans communities throughout New Mexico," Hale said.
Hale said he had received a dozen mayoral letters of support for the project so far.
Farmington Mayor Pro-tem Dan Darnell attended the meeting for Mayor Tommy Roberts who couldn't attend.
"We're very interested in being a part of this. As soon as we can find something that can be a good fit, we'll send (a letter)," Darnell said. "Mayor Roberts is very supportive of the project."
David Nez, manager of the Navajo Nation Department of Veterans Affairs, also attended the meeting. He said struggles to build a cemetery for veterans on the Navajo Nation in Arizona has stalled because of a lack of funding, which made Hale and Sanchez's pitch attractive.
"If I join with (the department), then it's going to be a cemetery that's tailored to both (Navajos and non-natives) with cultural sensitivity. My hope is that our plans can dovetail together."
For more information, go to http://www.dvs.state.nm.us/ or contact Ray Seva, NMDVS spokesman, at 505-827-6352 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4631 and email@example.com. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.