Tired of waiting, veterans create independent plan to add amenities at Fargo National Cemetery
Progress is being made as the group hopes to buy land and self-finance a gathering building and parking lot project.
HARWOOD, N.D. — A year ago on Memorial Day weekend, Elizabeth Zwinger Richards and her family buried their Korean War veteran husband and father, Joe, in the Fargo National Cemetery on what they thought would be a nice day.
However, the service had to be shortened because of extreme wind and cold.
"Yet the Honor Guard so faithfully braved the elements with us along with Father (Duane) Prubila," she said.
The cemetery sits in a mostly empty area with little protection from the elements and no fully enclosed shelter, parking lot, or permanent restroom.
Many people who frequent the cemetery agree with Richards that an indoor gathering center and parking lot are needed at the three-year-old Fargo National Cemetery.
The question that remains is when and how.
If the nonprofit Fargo Memorial Honor Guard had their way, it would be sooner rather than later, according to Jim Graalum, who has been designated as one of the main fundraisers for the project.
Richards, who has donated money several times to the cause, said, "To have a shelter and bathroom facilities would be fantastic to those who honor our beloved veterans in their final resting place on Earth."
The Honor Guard foresees the project being built on four to five acres adjacent to or just east of the five-acre cemetery northwest of Fargo. It would include a chapel, gathering room, restroom and storage, as well as a Native American ceremonial site.
The only bathroom currently at the site is a port-a-potty, Cemetery Manager Jennifer Lieder said.
Since opening almost three years ago, about 560 veterans and spouses have been buried at the site which serves veterans and their families from the region and is associated with the Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis.
Graalum, a veteran of 28 years, has been told by the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department's National Cemetery Administration that it could take 18 months to two years to purchase the land, as studies on the suitability or environment would be needed first.
The Honor Guard thinks that timeline is unacceptable, Graalum said, and they would like to "go it alone" financially on the parking lot and building project with construction hopefully starting next year.
The main reasons for the stepped-up schedule are people at burials often park dangerously on the nearby County Road 20, and the brutal winter weather can be uncomfortable for any burial ceremony as they are held year-round, according to Graalum.
When asked how many ceremonies are held in the winter months, Lieder said during the first two years there were few largely because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But she said there were "a lot" this past winter.
To allow more burials in the colder months, Lieder and Graalum said there are "crypts" already in place at the cemetery with only minor digging required, and the graves are covered with three feet of dirt. That makes the cemetery different than others where the deeper burials often have to be delayed until warmer months.
To address some of the concerns for the time being, U.S. Sen. John Hoeven's office said improvements have been secured. They include a more permanent vault-style or pit restroom, a storage shed and wind walls. The projects are expected to be completed by the end of summer.
There may also be an announcement in the coming days about another improvement planned for the cemetery, his office said.
The Honor Guard is hard at work figuring out when the project could begin, but the question remains of how to get it done.
Graalum said they have been working tirelessly to secure funds and meeting with numerous government and local officials and groups to help make their plan a reality.
He said they are lining up in-kind services and already have an architectural firm, Icon Architectural Group, working with them.
In fact, Icon worked with North Dakota State University architectural, landscape and visual arts students and faculty this past semester to develop concepts for the new gathering facility at the cemetery.
Last month, a winning concept and design was selected from entries by nine teams each made up of about nine third-year students. The top team shared in scholarship money, according to Susan Kliman, who chairs the architecture department.
Graalum said another big step would be working with the North Dakota National Guard on the project to provide construction and material assistance.
While all of those efforts would help financially, there's still a lot of money that would need to be raised.
So far, the veterans group has accrued close to $300,000 in donations and pledges. Donations keep coming, Graalum said, as they continue a major effort to raise the funds.
Despite all of the positive steps forward, the project has sparked concerns about how exactly to proceed. At a Cass County Commission meeting last month, concerns were raised about moving too fast and doing the project incorrectly or through the wrong channels.
Last week, Graalum and Honor Guard Commander Jason Hicks met with representatives from Hoeven's office and the Department of Veteran Affairs National Cemetery Administration.
After that meeting, Hoeven's staff said they were working on securing more enhancements for the cemetery.
The senator's office said the upgrades planned for this summer were "a good start."
"But more needs to be done," the statement said. "That's why we're working with the NCA to help with additional facilities to better meet the needs of veterans, families and volunteers and also for the NCA to work closely with veterans groups."
It seems Hoeven favored the local Honor Guard's plans, as the senator's office added, "We’ve also secured a commitment from NCA to consider the local proposal once a detailed business plan has been completed, and any needed federal approvals would depend on the project’s location."
The Fargo National Cemetery is the first national cemetery built in the state as part of the National Cemetery Administration's Rural Initiative to provide better access to burial benefits for veterans who reside in rural areas and who have not previously had reasonable or close access to a national or state veterans cemetery.
There is also a state-funded veterans cemetery in Bismarck.
Hoeven's office said he's working through the Senate Veterans Affairs Appropriations Committee to identify ways to better support the rural veterans cemeteries and their related projects.
As far as Graalum's group goes, the next step is to form a foundation, and they have scheduled a meeting next week with a banker for assistance.
Once they form the foundation, he said, they hope to meet with the owner of the surrounding land, Jake Gust. It was reported at the county board meeting that Gust was willing to sell his property to the Honor Guard but wanted a government entity involved.
Gust is also willing to sell more of the land as the National Cemetery Administration is considering expanding to the north, it was reported at the meeting.
For now, purchasing the smaller parcel of land for the parking lot and gathering center would be a major step forward, Graalum said.
There is also a volunteer committee that is working on events at the cemetery and assisting in other ways. State Rep. Brandy Pyle, R-Casselton, was heading the committee but has stepped down.
She told The Forum before her resignation that the committee hasn't taken a stand on the project because there are concerns about how it would be done.
There's also the question of if the state could help financially. Pyle declined to answer that question.
However, Graalum said he talked with State Senator Ron Sorvaag, R-Fargo, who said there's a possibility the state could offer financial assistance.
Sorvaag told The Forum he had some preliminary discussions with Graalum, but the purpose and amount of the funding were not specifically discussed.
Graalum said state funding could be used for a geothermal system to keep energy and maintenance expenses down.
Although questions remain, there is hope that the project can get underway sooner rather than later.
Graalum said he just hopes it doesn't take several years before anything is done.