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Ceremony turns pasture into hallowed ground for Southern Colorado veterans

Author: Tom Roeder, The Gazette - May 25, 2018 - Updated: May 27, 2018

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Eric Testorff, retired Air Force and member of the the American Legion Post 209, listens as U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., speaks during the dedication of the new Pikes Peak National Cemetery on May 25, east of the Colorado Springs Airport. The first burials are scheduled to begin in the fall of 2018. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

COLORADO SPRINGS — For the next century or so, the pasture off Drennan Road will be a place of pilgrimage for the Pikes Peak region. It will be a final home to an estimated 100,000 veterans and family members.

It all started Friday when veterans gathered to turn the pasture into hallowed ground by dedicating the Pikes Peak National Veterans Cemetery.

“Our veterans of southern Colorado now have a resting place close to home that will pay lasting tribute to their sacrifice for our nation,” said retired Army Col. Vic Fernandez, who helped lead a two-decade campaign for the cemetery.

With stunning views of Cheyenne Mountain and Pikes Peak, the 374-acre cemetery will be a peaceful place with green grass and attractive trees amid its rolling hills.

For now, the site southeast of the Colorado Springs Airport is a dusty scene of construction as crews prepare the land for its first burials, now scheduled for October.

Despite the region’s outsized veteran population – more than 80,000 in El Paso County alone – getting the cemetery took long years of overcoming obstacles from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which long maintained that Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver adequately served the state’s needs.

Fernandez and others lobbied relentlessly to get VA to change its mind, enlisting powerful political allies along the way.

Colorado Springs Republican U.S. Rep Doug Lamborn, who began championing the effort in 2006, was exuberant Friday.

“It has perhaps been my main mission in Congress,” Lamborn said. “We got it done.”

It was also an issue that united politicians of all stripes. Lamborn, known as one of the most conservative lawmakers in the House, hugged former Democratic U.S. Rep John Salazar, who lobbied his side of the aisle to get the cemetery approved.

Democratic Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet said he had barely found his office in Washington when he was enlisted into the effort.

“I don’t think I was in the job 120 minutes before I had that meeting,” he quipped. “It proves we can get something done in Washington.”

Those who gathered at the dedication Friday have soaring goals for the former pasture.

VA’s undersecretary for memorial affairs, Randy Reaves, said it’s more than a place for the region’s honored dead – it’s a place that will keep their memories alive.

“This is a place of honor, a place of learning, a place of fellowship and a place of healing,” he said.

Paul LaGrange, the cemetery’s director, said work to turn the place into a fitting tribute for veterans is well underway. The cemetery is hiring staff while bulldozers clear the ground.

“This 374-acre cemetery is designed to take care of eligible veterans and their families in this region for 100 years,” he said.

It will be a busier this fall, when the first caskets and urns will be buried there. More graves will be ready in early 2019, when the first phase of construction wraps up, he said.

City crews are resurfacing Drennan Road this summer to handle the expected traffic.

Lamborn said all of the effort that has gone into building the cemetery pales in comparison to the sacrifices of the men and women who will be buried there.

“There is truly nothing we can do as a nation to repay them for the burden they carried,” he said.

Tom Roeder, The Gazette

Tom Roeder, The Gazette