DULUTH — It is said that every person dies twice, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Undersecretary Randy Reeves told a crowd gathered near Duluth Saturday, Sept. 21.
"We die the first death when breath leaves us for the very last time," Reeves said. "But we only truly die sometime in the future, when no one speaks our name and tells our story."
Reeves and other officials were on hand to usher in a long-awaited project meant to ensure that the names and stories of Northland veterans are never forgotten.
Hundreds gathered to reflect and pay tribute as the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery — Duluth was officially dedicated. In the works for years, the first veteran was laid to rest at the facility last Veterans Day, Nov. 11.
It is the third state veterans cemetery, after Little Falls, in central Minnesota, and Preston, in the southeastern part of the state. Minnesota also has a national veterans cemetery at Fort Snelling in the Twin Cities.
But until now, officials said, there had never been a local place for northeastern Minnesota's veterans to receive a burial with full military honors.
"A few years ago, we knew that we needed to have more state veterans cemeteries," Gov. Tim Walz told attendees of Saturday's dedication ceremony. "We made a pledge at that time, and I reiterate it to you today, that if you entrust Minnesota, we will care for our heroes better than any place in the nation."
The cemetery sits on 104 acres of land acquired by the state in February 2016. To date, 19 acres have been developed, with additional phases to be constructed as needed in the coming decades. It is planned to eventually accommodate more than 32,000 veterans and their dependent family members, said Larry Herke, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs.
The cemetery currently includes 850 pre-placed crypts, 407 traditional casket burial places, 1,078 cremains gravesites and 720 columbarium niches for urns. Nestled among towering trees in Grand Lake Township, the grounds also include an imposing front gate along U.S. Highway 53, an administration building, maintenance facility, assembly area and committal shelter for interment services.
"The Minnesota State Veterans Cemeteries are sacred grounds and we will demonstrate dignity, respect and our appreciation for all those who have served and their family members who choose this as their final resting place," Herke said.
Walz said there is still a need for additional cemeteries to provide better geographic representation for the state's veterans. He praised the ongoing efforts of David Swantek, the director of the state cemeteries.
"Our responsibility here is till the end of time," Walz said. "As long as this nation is on the earth, we will stand and protect this hallowed ground."
Officials said the cemetery would not have been possible without a partnership between state and federal agencies. That included an $8.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
"I will go on record, and have many times, in saying that the state cemetery grants program is arguably the best state and federal partnership in this nation," said Reeves, who oversees 138 national cemeteries and 115 state and tribal grant-funded cemeteries throughout the country.
Reeves said he's been to the Preston cemetery multiple times and is impressed with the work Minnesota is doing to honor veterans.
"Those who are laid here to rest — not only will they be honored, not only will they be revered for their service and their sacrifice — but I know that this community and this state will speak their names and tell their stories so that it can carry on for future generations to know who gave them the freedoms that they have," Reeves told attendees.
Reeves said the National Cemetery Administration's goal is to provide no less than 95% of the nation's veterans a "dignified burial option" within 75 miles of their homes. He said that figure is currently at about 93% percent, with rural areas facing the most challenges, but progress continues to be made with the addition of sites like Duluth.
Walz, who served 24 years with the Army National Guard, told reporters before the event that veterans issues are personal for him.
"I will spend my eternity in one of these state veterans cemeteries," the governor said. "These are brothers and sisters in arms. And my commitment, especially now as commander-in-chief of the Minnesota National Guard, is to care with dignity."
The Democratic governor said few things in today's "chaotic, divided world" can unite people quite like care for veterans. He and Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber sat next to one another and praised each other's efforts to provide services for veterans.
"I would encourage people, if they're ever wondering about their own spirituality or where they're at, come spend some time in a veterans cemetery," Walz said. "I think what you'll find is there will be no grounds cared for with greater care than a veterans cemetery. And you can already feel that here."