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Patriotic plot

Senators push national cemetery plan despite VA rules

Colorado's two senators and Springs Congressman Joel Hefley joined forces last week in a bid to create a national cemetery for the Pikes Peak region.

The move is designed to earn the support of more than 100,000 veterans and nearly 30,000 military personnel stationed in and around Colorado Springs.

"The vets deserve this cemetery," said Cody Wertz, spokesman for Sen. Ken Salazar, who voiced his support for the bill Sen. Wayne Allard introduced in committee last week. Hefley introduced an identical bill in the House.

But the plan received a douse of cold water from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

During the meeting, Richard Wannemacher, the department's acting undersecretary for memorial affairs, said Colorado Springs would be ineligible because it lies within 75 miles of Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver.

Both Allard and Salazar countered that regional options outside of Colorado Springs would be considered, and received assurances from the VA that the proposal would be given a chance.

Explained VA spokeswoman Jo Schuda: "It's not just a matter of distance -- it is distance between burial options," which include state veterans cemeteries. The closest state cemetery is in Homelake, in southwest Colorado, more than 75 miles away.

Schuda said the VA currently operates 120 national cemeteries in 39 states and Puerto Rico, and currently is building 11 more. The new sites are in areas where 170,000 or more veterans live at least 75 miles from the nearest national cemetery. She said Denver's Fort Logan would have room for burials for at least another 16 years.

The VA, which also administers veterans hospitals, may have difficulty taking on new projects. The department, which has a $70 billion annual budget, now projects a $1 billion dollar shortfall for 2006 due to increased medical costs.

But, as Schuda noted, "Congress can legislate what it wants."

-- Dan Wilcock

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