New Mexico’s Cabinet Secretary of the Department of Veterans’ Services Sonya Smith told Carlsbad veterans they might expect to see ground broken on a state veterans’ cemetery as early as summer 2023.
Smith, and other staff from the department, were in Carlsbad July 21 to present plans for the proposed $6.4 million project which would be located on 10-acres of land adjacent to Sunset Gardens Cemetery in Carlsbad.
The funding is supplied through a grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
David Walker, chief for the cemeteries and memorials bureau, estimated that the US. Department of Veterans’ Affairs’ budget would contain about $50 million in grant funds for cemeteries, though he warned it would likely not be confirmed until October of this year. The federal budget is expected to be approved in August by Congress.
With an expected $6 million of those funds granted for this project, Walker said New Mexico created a $400,000 revolving fund for state veterans’ cemeteries which paved the way for the federal grant to construct the cemetery in Carlsbad.
Edward Mendez, benefits and service director at the New Mexico Department of Veterans’ Services, said the cemetery would feature an administrative building and a committal shelter.
The cemetery would be constructed in phases, with the first phase designed with room for 435 crypts.
Once complete, the site would employee up to four full time positions. For now three full time positions are planned: One internment supervisor with a pay scale between $20 to $25, and two internment specialists with a pay scale between $15 and $19 depending upon experience. Mendez said the department would seek approval for an additional planned employee during the upcoming New Mexico Legislative session.
Mendez said he expected that once a contractor was selected and construction begins, the project would also mean additional economic opportunities for contractors and subcontractors in the region.
“I will tell you the far end of it is 18 months, that’s the build out. It all depends on the ground, topography, how it looks like, but the bottom line is we’re ready to go,” Mendez said.
Mendez estimated it would take up to 18 months for the project to be completed from the date of groundbreaking.
When complete, the cemetery would be the fourth in New Mexico. State veteran cemeteries already exist in Fort Stanton, Gallup and Angel Fire.
A national veterans’ cemetery is located in Santa Fe and its annex at Ft. Baynard. Those sites are managed by the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
Eligibility for internment at state veterans’ cemetery will include National Guard, reservists
Walker informed those gathered at the public meeting in Carlsbad that there are no reservations of crypts at state veterans’ cemeteries. Instead, eligibility must be met for internment.
Veterans interested in burial at the site can access a pre-application via the departments website at www.nmdvs.org.
Pre-applications would be filed until a veteran’s death and then escalated to determine eligibility.
To be eligible for burial, Walker said, a veteran must provide a copy of his or her discharge papers, have a general or honorable discharge, and not been convicted of a capitol crime or sexual offense.
Walker said the Department will also work to codify the eligibility of National Guard and reservists for burial in the state veterans’ cemetery during the upcoming New Mexico Legislative session. National Guard service members and reservists are not eligible for burial in federal veterans’ cemeteries, Walker said, but passage of public law 117-103 allowed states to make eligibility determinations for themselves.
“As a reservist that was very important to me, because I was eligible because I was deployed. But it is a bit unconscionable to me for those of us who have served but were never deployed that we couldn’t have the right to be buried with that honor,” Smith said.
Smith said she expected the full support of the State’s National Guard leadership and the legislature for the proposition.
Mendez cautioned that it would require additional funding, however, and that the department would work to secure that allocation pending its approval.
“All that we need now is support,” Mendez said, and urged those present to contact state legislators to express their support of the project.
Also eligible for internment are the spouse or partner of a veteran, with a marriage license provided at the time of pre-application, and up to one dependent child.
Jessica Onsurez can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @JussGREAT.