My name is Ron Walters and I work for the Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration. As a “VA official,” I was asked to give remarks during this year’s Memorial Day ceremony at South Florida National Cemetery in Lake Worth. I was grateful for the invitation from the sponsoring Palm Beach County Veterans Committee because it allowed me to honor those who gave their lives in defense of our freedom. It also gave me the chance to see how the young cemetery is coming along; I visited during the early stages of construction but hadn’t returned since.
One of the hallmarks of VA’s 131 national cemeteries is how different they are from place to place—even within the same state. So, if you’ve only ever been to the Army’s Arlington National Cemetery or to a private cemetery in your hometown, it’s hard to grasp the uniqueness of our cemeteries. For that reason, I decided to blog about the ones I visited on my return trip to D.C., to offer virtual travelers a closer look at Veterans cemeteries in the southeast. I hope you find their histories, landscapes and surrounding communities as interesting as I did.
I stood before the gravesite of the Great Santini and walked under centuries-old trees. I visited a cemetery that pre-dates the Civil War, and two still under construction. At each one, I met wonderful National Cemetery Administration employees or their state counterparts—all of whom reaffirmed our commitment “to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan,” as President Lincoln said.
Please join me for a tour of these national treasures!
South Florida National Cemetery, Lake Worth, FL: Memorial Day 2011
The Wellington High School Band was tuning up when I arrived at the cemetery just after 9:00 a.m., and cadets from the Seminole Ridge High School AFJROTC Hawk Battalion were already busy passing out programs and bottled water. More than 200 volunteers donated time, goods and talent to make the day a success—in keeping with the strong support this four-year-old cemetery receives year round from the community.
South Florida National Cemetery is part of the largest expansion of the national cemetery system since the Civil War. We make decisions about where to build new cemeteries by identifying unserved Veteran populations; our baseline is 80,000 unserved Veterans within a 75-miles radius.
We are currently acquiring land for five new national cemeteries to be constructed over the next several years. Two of the five will be in Florida, bringing the total number of national cemeteries in the state to nine.
As a result of this expansion and other efforts, we expect that by 2015, 94 percent of the Veteran population—about 20 million Veterans—will have a burial option in a national or state Veterans cemetery within 75 miles of their homes.
It’s good to get outside the D.C. Beltway to hear firsthand about the impact of our decisions on Veterans and their families. Several stopped me or other staff to say how grateful they were when we broke ground for South Florida National Cemetery, including one woman whose spouse died just last year. “When we moved down here from New York,” she explained, “we never thought my husband would be able to be buried in a national cemetery. It means a lot.”
Like all national cemeteries, this is a place of honor and respect. But as director Mishelle Kochel reminded us, it’s also a place to revisit cherished memories of parents, siblings, comrades, and friends; smiles and happy memories we shared with them of school, military service, careers, marriage and family. “It’s a place,” she said, “to remember them not only for their sacrifice but for the people they were in our lives.”
In a very real sense, every day is Memorial Day at our national cemeteries.
Below are photographs of the South Florida National Cemetery.
Ron Walters is VA’s Acting Principal Deputy Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs and Chief Financial Officer of the National Cemetery Administration. This is the first in his ten-part series on Veterans cemeteries in the southeastern U.S. Next in the series: St. Augustine: A Historic Cemetery in an Ancient City.