Construction has begun on the new Western New York National Cemetary in Pembroke though the initial plan for Phase I construction has been cut back because of budget constraints, Veterans Affairs officials told a gathering of veterans Wednesday in Corfu.
The 132-acre cemetery will accommodate the remains of 96,000 veterans over the next 70 years but veterans at Wednesday's meeting were most concerned about the here-and-now: delays in construction; the need to scale back Phase I; and either budget shortfalls or mistakes by the VA in estimating construction costs.
Congress originally appropriated $36 million for the cemetery but the VA is now asking for an additional $10 million to complete construction.
One of the key legislative supporters of the cemetery has been Sen. Charles Schumer and his regional director, Chris Zelmann told veterans Wednesday that the senator continues to support the project and will fight for more funding once the VA validates the need for the additional $10 million in funding.
"It's paramount to the senator to make sure the VA moves heaven and earth to make good on its commitment to honoring our heroes in Western New York to ensure they can use the benefits they've earned and deserve," Zelmann said.
The vast majority of men and women who served in the U.S. military and received any discharge other than dishonorable are eligible for free interment at a national cemetery.
Burials at the cemetery are expected to begin as late next year but for veterans who wish to have their remains cremated, their families will have to wait until Phase I-B is completed, perhaps not until 2022.
That phase will contain a columbarium, an arc-shaped area with rows of columns that will hold boxes for cremated remains.
One woman at Wednesday's town hall said she's been storing her husband's cremated remains for four years.
One reason for the delay in construction said James Metcalfe, the new director of the WNY National Cemetery (top photo), in his experience working with two different contractors -- each phase has different construction contractors -- simultaneously can make it difficult to accommodate funerals. The goal is to get one section open for burials as soon as possible, then finish that construction before the second contractor begins work.
"We want internment and ceremonies taking place while there isn't so much underway at the same time both to maintain safety and a level of decorum," Metcalfe said.
One veteran expressed concern about the plan to use, temporarily, a trailer to house members of the honor guard. He said being an honor guard is physically and emotionally taxing and on days when they are performing services for multiple funerals, the members need a place to rest, relax, eat, and "hang their hat." He expressed concern that a trailer wouldn't be adequate.
Metcalfe said that while he can't provide the exact specifications of the trailer, he assured veterans that it would be appropriate and comfortable for members of the honor guard.
Eventually, the honor guard will have a permanent structure appropriate to their needs.
Assemblyman Steve Hawley, while acknowledging the bipartisan support for the veterans cemetery, said it's important for veterans and their families to keep the pressure on federal elected officials to ensure the project is appropriately funded. He said veterans should keep emailing and writing letters in support of funding.
"These are the people who served their country and they deserve a place to be buried with honor and dignity," Hawley said. "I'm not blaming any of you (motioning toward the VA officials). Even though some of us come from different political parties, it doesn't matter when it comes to taking care of our veterans.
"Today, I emailed Senator Schumer and my contact in the Trump Administration. If it's the money, it shouldn't matter when it comes to taking care of our veterans."
Assemblyman Steve Hawley