A new effort to honor veterans in their final resting place is gaining some local attention.
Per data from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, New York is one of the last states without an official state-run veterans’ cemetery.
On Veteran’s Day 2019, Governor Andrew Cuomo first announced his plans to push this idea forward.
Leaders in Seneca County are attempting to convert the Sampson Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Romulus into the very first one.
“We’re ready, we’re here,” said Seneca County Manager Mitch Rowe.
Since it was first opened in 2011, the grounds have housed the final resting place for roughly 700 veterans and their families, with room for many more. It’s a plan Rowe says was all by design.
“It was designed, built and is operated to the [New York State] Secretary of Veterans Affairs standards,” Rowe said.
In addition to specific designs, about $3.3 million in state funding was secured by former New York State Senator Michael Nozzolio (R-54th District) to turn part of the approximately 2,000-acre property into the cemetery.
With those factors in mind, Rowe has stepped in to help lead the charge to get the cemetery recognized, and run, by the state.
Under state control, Rowe says day-to day operations would remain mostly the same, though the property would receive federal funding to keep the grounds in shape. It’s a move Rowe says would be special for the community and would carry personal meaning for him, as he has family buried here.
“You’re going to make me cry — my father, Sanford M. Rowe, was a Purple Heart recipient,” he said.
Currently, Seneca County owns and maintains the grounds through the county’s Industrial Development Agency and Economic Development Corporation.
According to Steven Brusso, chairman of the IDA and vice-chair of the EDC, the organization “is fully supporting the efforts of the County and local legislators to have Sampson Veterans Memorial Cemetery become a State Veteran’s Cemetery.”
Brusso added: “The IDA has been operating and maintaining Sampton Veteran Memorial Cememtery for Seneca County since 2011, and hired Bill Yale, who has extensive knowledge in operating national veteran’s cemeteries, to handle the day to day operation.
“Bill has done an excellent job both operating Sampson and ensuring it meets State and national standards so Sampson can become the first State Veteran’s Cemetery with little or no additional work.”
The effort has already grabbed the attention of local lawmakers around the county, and on a state level with leaders like Senator Pam Helming (R-54th District) joining the cause.
“It’s an incredibly beautiful, peaceful place,” Helming said.
Before Sampson became a cemetery, the grounds served as a United States Air Force base and a training ground for the United States Navy. The base closed in 2000.
“On a personal note, my own father passed through there as a member of the Air Force, preparing for the Korean War,” Helming said.
Helming said the grounds would still be in good hands if the state did not make Sampson a state-recognized area, though, she said, the funding would help the cause.
Another backer of the push to allow the cemetery to be state-run is Senator Robert Ortt-R, of the 62nd District. Ortt is an announced candidate for the 27th congressional district.
In a release issued from Helming’s office in mid-January, Ortt said how “we owe the men and women who have served in our nation’s military” a resting place which “recognizes and commemorates their service.”
“It is my hope that Sampson will be designated as the officially-designated state run veteran’s cemetery,” Ortt stated.
While there is uncertainty around whether this distinction will occur this legislative session, Ortt stated he is determined to move ahead.
“I know this is a priority for me, for Senator Helming, and for our local veterans and their families. We hope to continue momentum that has built over the years at the local level and address the sad reality that New York does not have a state veterans’ cemetery,” Ortt stated.
According to Governor Cuomo, any site considered must set aside at least 15 years’ worth of care costs, though he pledged to introduce legislation to make access to the federal funds easier.
Even with the grounds up to state standards and growing support, ultimately, Rowe says the decision will be up to lawmakers in the current state legislative session. But, he’s not losing hope.
“It would be a tremendous honor and pride for our county,” Rowe said.
According to Rowe, the Seneca County Industrial Development Agency made a 10-year commitment providing funding and other financial support starting in 2011. Rowe says if the state is not selected, the full funding will be turned back over to the county.
The cemetery will continue to operate as normal. Rowe says leaders may find out if they have been selected by the end of the year.
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