(WKBW release) New York Senator Charles E. Schumer on Tuesday called on the Department of Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to organize a high level meeting between Schumer and Veterans Affairs officials in Washington D.C. to craft an immediate plan to finalize the establishment of a veterans cemetery in Western New York, a project that the senator has long fought for, and one Schumer says has been delayed for too long due to a lack of focus and execution.
According to a news release from Schumer's office:
Schumer's push to iron out a concrete timeline follows reports in early March 2012 that the VA had not found a viable cemetery site among those being considered over the previous year in Western New York. At that time, Schumer called on the Department to put forward a strict and expedited timeline to ensure that the veterans cemetery avoids further delay.
The March 2nd announcement, in which the VA announced it will conduct yet a third site solicitation to canvas for new potential sites, delays the timeline for this critical project by another 12 to 15 months for due diligence and acquisition, all without any assurance of success. This announcement reverses progress made in March 2011, when the VA announced their plans to visit six potential veterans cemetery sites in Western New York, followed by the determination to further evaluate at least two of the sites for its "due diligence" phase. Given this additional and avoidable setback, Schumer demanded that high level VA officials meet with him and make this veterans cemetery in Western New York a priority, as it is for the hundreds of thousands of veterans from Rochester to Buffalo. The continued failure to acquire the necessary land for the cemetery, delays the design and building phase that will ultimately lead to a suitable resting place for Western New York veterans.
"We are done with the delays and the do-overs; Western New York veterans have earned a cemetery and the VA needs to step up to the plate and spell out in precise detail how – and when – we are going to make this happen," said Schumer, the long-time champion of this effort. "Constructing a veterans cemetery in Western New York has been at the top of the priority list for hundreds of thousands of veterans and their advocates for years, yet this critical project has been met with Veteran Affairs' delays, restarts and excuses time and time again. At this point, enough is enough, and I am calling on Secretary Shinseki to organize a high-level meeting and get everyone on board so that we can cut through the bureaucratic red tape and find the long-awaited burial ground that Western New York's brave heroes so greatly deserve. The VA's announcement for a third site solicitation earlier this month indicates that they are back to the drawing board more than a year and a half later, and this is absolutely unacceptable. I am urging Secretary Shinseki to help iron out a concrete plan, with a strict timeline, so that this project can not only avoid further delays but actually be expedited."
In Schumer's letter urging VA Secretary Shinseki to organize a high level meeting to outline a concrete plan for the veterans cemetery, he reiterated his grave concern with the Department's recent timeline for selecting a Western New York veteran's cemetery site. There are approximately 200,000 veterans in Western New York, including those living in the Rochester region and those veterans who live more than 75 miles from the nearest available National Cemetery. VA regulations requires that a new National Cemetery be established when a cemetery would serve 80,000 or more veterans within a 75 mile area.
The VA's March 2nd announcement of a third site solicitation comes a year after a March 2011 announcement in which the VA outlined the firm schedule for site selection that Schumer had strongly lobbied for. In late March, the VA visited six potential locations, and the officials assessed which sites best fit the VA's criteria, which included factors such as the site's topography, access to highways, proximity to wetlands, and the impact of neighboring facilities. After this assessment was completed, the VA ranked and scored each site as part of its evaluation process, and the VA narrowed the field of candidate sites to the top few and proceeded with a more detailed due diligence analysis. At that time, the VA indicated that it would then be on track to acquire the property by the end of this year or the Spring of 2012. However, the March 2nd announcement that the VA now believes none of these sites will be viable and it plans to restart the entire site search will add 12 to 15 months to what has already been a protracted timeline.
Veterans Affairs began seeking a cemetery site in August 2010, with the effort focused within a 50 mile diameter area which included parts of Erie County, Orleans County, Niagara County and Genesee county. In January 2011, the VA announced that they were starting over and had moved the area under consideration to the east and would center it in Genesee County. A year later, the recent news that yet a third site solicitation will be conducted by the VA pushes that timeline back another 12-15 months.
Schumer has long argued that it is critical for the veterans cemetery location to be decided on and for building to begin immediately. Half of New York Veterans are 65 years of age or older, and now is the time to start planning for the future of those veterans, and ensuring that they are treated with the honor they deserve. Schumer has heard from local veterans groups that veterans in Western New York desperately want to be buried in a national shrine, but don't want to force their families to travel long distances to visit, potentially at great hardship to do so. Today, there are more than 22 million veterans who are eligible for the honor of burial in a National Cemetery. Veterans with discharges other than dishonorable, their spouses and dependent children may be eligible for burial in a VA national cemetery. Those who die on active duty may also be buried in a national cemetery.
Sean P Eagan
Former Chairman American Cold War Veterans