As fighter jets from the nearby Seymour Johnson Air Force base roared overhead, politicians and veterans gathered Monday to dedicate a new burial ground – the fourth state-run veterans cemetery in North Carolina.
“Isn’t that a beautiful sound?” Gov. Pat McCrory said as the planes drowned out his remarks. “I love it. That’s the sound of freedom right there.”
The Eastern Carolina State Veterans Cemetery has been in the works for more than a decade in Wayne County, which is home to the base and its frequent training flights. The federal government provided a $5.4 million grant to build the cemetery on county-owned land a few miles east of Goldsboro, but local leaders weren’t successful in making it a federally run national cemetery.
“The national government was not in a position to make such a commitment,” said U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, a Farmville Republican who spoke at the dedication.
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That’s when the state stepped in and agreed to manage the property and oversee burials, making the plots free to North Carolina veterans and their spouses. Jimmy Woodard, facilities manager for the N.C. Department of Veterans Affairs, said states are increasingly taking on the responsibility of burying veterans.
“I think (the federal government) will open a few or will expand some, but they’re turning it over to the states to take over that program,” Woodard said.
North Carolina’s four cemeteries – the others are in Spring Lake, Black Mountain and Jacksonville – average about 30 to 40 burials a month. The new Goldsboro cemetery will accommodate about 11,000 graves, and crypts are already in place to handle the first burials, which are expected in the coming weeks. Unlike private cemeteries that sometimes fall into disrepair, burial in a state cemetery ensures that veterans’ graves will always be kept “pristine,” Woodard said.
“We’re going to the try to have the headstones in a line kind of like Arlington” National Cemetery in Washington, Woodard said. “Hopefully it will resemble Arlington in that aspect.”
With Veterans Day approaching on Wednesday, speakers at the dedication ceremony highlighted today’s challenges for the military and its veterans.
The ceremony honored Army Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, a soldier with ties to North Carolina who was killed last month during a raid to free Islamic State hostages in Iraq.
“My goal is to have no one buried here, but the price of freedom is not free,” McCrory said.
The governor said his administration is making veterans a priority, recently elevating the Division of Veterans Affairs to a cabinet-level department. Veterans now qualify for in-state tuition and can earn career certifications and college credit for their military experiences.
For example, McCrory said, veterans who drove a truck in the military won’t need to go through civilian truck driver training. “If you can avoid mines in Afghanistan, you can avoid potholes here in North Carolina,” he said.
Jones used his remarks to call on House Speaker Paul Ryan and President Barack Obama to allow Congress to vote on further military involvement in the Middle East.
“We need to follow the Constitution,” he said, and “have a debate on what is our role in Syria and what is the end point of our role in Syria.”
With dozens of Vietnam War veterans at Monday’s ceremony, McCrory said they were mistreated when they returned from the unpopular war. The new cemetery, he said, will ensure that “the new generation of heroes will be given the respect that the Vietnam veterans did not get.”
The state’s cemeteries are open to all veterans, no matter how long ago they served in the military. “This place will be a visible tribute to all of our veterans,” said Tony Braswell, a Vietnam veteran and chairman of the N.C. Veterans Affairs Commission. “I choose to define this as a place of honor.”