Tired of waiting, veterans create independent plan to add amenities to Fargo National Cemetery – InForum

HARWOOD, ND – A year ago on Memorial Day weekend, Elizabeth Zwinger Richards and her family buried their Korean War veteran husband and father, Joe, at Fargo National Cemetery, which they believed be a nice day.

However, the service had to be cut short due to extreme wind and cold.

“Yet the honor guard so faithfully braved the elements with us with Father (Duane) Prubila,” she said.

The cemetery is in a mostly empty area with little protection from the elements and without fully enclosed shelter, parking, or permanent restrooms.

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 is successful, it would be sooner rather than later, according to Jim Graalum, who has been named as one of the project’s main fundraisers.

Richards, who has donated money to the cause on several occasions, said: “Having shelter and restrooms would be fantastic for those honoring our beloved veterans in their final resting place on Earth.”

The Fargo Memorial Honor Guard group raised funds to make improvements to Fargo National Cemetery in Harwood.

David Samson / The Forum

The Honor Guard anticipates the project will be built on four to five acres adjacent to or just east of the five-acre cemetery northwest of Fargo. It would include a chapel, assembly hall, restrooms and storage, as well as a Native American ceremony site.

The only bathroom currently on the site is a port-a-potty, cemetery superintendent Jennifer Lieder said.

Since opening nearly three years ago, approximately 560 veterans and spouses have been buried at the site, which serves area veterans and their families and is associated with Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis.

Graalum, a 28-year-old veteran, was told by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs‘ National Cemeteries Administration that purchasing the land could take 18 months to two years because suitability or environmental studies would be needed first.

The honor guard thinks the timeline is unacceptable, Graalum said, and they would like to “go it alone” financially on the parking lot and the building project, with construction hopefully beginning next year.

The main reasons for the escalating schedule are that people at funerals often park unsafely on nearby County Road 20, and the brutal winter weather can be uncomfortable for any burial ceremony as they take place throughout the year, according to Graalum.

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The Fargo Memorial Honor Guard group raised funds to make improvements to Fargo National Cemetery in Harwood.

David Samson/The Forum

When asked how many ceremonies were held during the winter months, Lieder said that in the first two years there were few largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But she said there were “a lot” of them last winter.

To allow for more burials in the colder months, Lieder and Graalum said there are already “crypts” at the cemetery with only minor excavations needed, and the graves are covered with three feet of soil. This makes the cemetery different from others where deeper burials often have to be delayed until warmer months.

To address some of the concerns at the moment, US Senator John Hoeven’s office said improvements have been secured. They include a vault or more permanent outhouse, a storage shed and wind walls. The projects should be completed by the end of the summer.

There may also be an announcement in the coming days about another planned upgrade to the cemetery, his office said.

The honor guard is working hard to figure out when the project could start, but the question remains how to do it.

Graalum said they are working tirelessly to secure funds and are meeting with many government and local officials and groups to help bring their plan to fruition.

He said they were lining up in-kind services and already had an architectural firm, Icon Architectural Group, working with them.

In fact, Icon has been working with architecture, landscape, and visual arts students and faculty at North Dakota State University over the past semester to develop concepts for the new gathering facility at the cemetery.

Last month, a winning concept and design was selected from entries from nine teams, each made up of approximately nine third-year students. The top team shared the scholarship money, according to Susan Kliman, who chairs the architecture department.

Graalum said another big step would be to work with the North Dakota National Guard on the project to provide construction and material assistance.

Although all of these efforts would help financially, there is still a lot of money to be raised.

So far, the veterans group has racked up nearly $300,000 in donations and pledges. Donations keep coming in, Graalum said, as they continue a major fundraising effort.

Despite all the positive progress, the project has raised concerns about exactly how to proceed. At a Cass County Commission meeting last month, concerns were raised about moving too quickly and doing the project incorrectly or through the wrong channels.

Last week, Graalum and Honor Guard Commander Jason Hicks met with officials from Hoeven’s office and the National Cemetery Administration of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

After that meeting, Hoeven staff said they were working on getting more improvements for the cemetery.

The senator’s office said the upgrades planned for this summer were “a good start.”

“But there is still much to do,” 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 appears that Hoeven favored the plans of the local honor guard, as the senator’s office added: “We also obtained a commitment from the NCA to review the local proposal once a plan of detailed business will have been completed, and any necessary federal approval will depend on the project location.”

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The Fargo Memorial Honor Guard group raised funds to make improvements to Fargo National Cemetery in Harwood.

David Samson/The Forum

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 National Veterans Cemetery.

There is also a state-funded veterans cemetery in Bismarck.

Hoeven’s office said it was working through the Senate Veterans Appropriations Committee to identify ways to better support rural veterans’ cemeteries and related projects.

As for the Graalum group, the next step is to form a foundation, and they’ve scheduled a meeting next week with a banker for help.

Once they form the foundation, he said, they hope to meet the owner of the surrounding land, Jake Gust. It was reported at the county council meeting that Gust was ready to sell his property to the honor guard but wanted a government entity involved.

Gust is also willing to sell more land as the national cemetery administration plans to expand north, it was reported at the meeting.

For now, buying the smaller parcel of land for the parking lot and assembly center would be a big step forward, Graalum said.

There is also a committee of volunteers who work on events at the cemetery and help in other ways. State Representative Brandy Pyle, R-Casselton, led the committee but resigned.

She told the Forum before her resignation that the committee had not taken a position on the project because there were concerns about how it would be done.

There is also the question of whether the state could help financially. Pyle declined to answer this question.

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Jim Graalum smiles outside Fargo National Cemetery Thursday, May 26, 2022.

Alyssa Goelzer/The Forum

However, Graalum said he spoke with State Sen. Ron Sorvaag, R-Fargo, who said it’s possible the state could offer financial assistance.

Sorvaag told the Forum that he had preliminary discussions with Graalum, but the purpose and amount of funding was not specifically discussed.

Graalum said state funding could be used for a geothermal system to reduce energy and maintenance expenses.

Although questions remain, it is hoped that the project can start sooner rather than later.

Graalum said he just hoped it wouldn’t be several years before anything was done.

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