For years, Central Coast veterans wishing to be buried in one of the nation’s veterans cemeteries have had to make arrangements at burial grounds that were all over 100 miles away.
There are nine National Veterans Cemeteries in California, five of which are open for new burials. The closest cemetery to Santa Barbara County is in Bakersfield, which makes it difficult for families to pay respects to their loved ones.
That could change if a proposal put forward by a task force of local veterans and community leaders is acted upon.
Jim Bray, who spent 28 years in the Army including time as a U.S. Army Special Forces lieutenant, organized the task force in 2003 out of a desire to see a cemetery that could serve the veteran population of Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.
The Department of Veterans Affairs maintains 135 national cemeteries.
Although the U.S. Air Force has yet to select a headquarters for its planned U.S. Space Command operation, military leaders have revealed that one of the new command’s major components will be housed at Vandenberg Air Force Base.
In general, veterans are eligible to be interred at one of the cemeteries if they died on active duty or served on active duty and were discharged under conditions other than dishonorable.
Local veterans say there’s a distinct need for a veterans cemetery on the Central Coast, which is home to thousands of active duty and retired military personnel.
On Wednesday, Bray gave a presentation on the proposal to the American Legion Post 534.
Bray said the task force, which concluded its work in 2010, would like to turn 150 acres located outside the gates of Vandenberg Air Force Base into a cemetery for Central Coast veterans.
Work stalled on the project after the task force disbanded but the needs identified by the task force remain relevant, Bray said.
"Now that I've retired, I've really focused my passion back on this project," he said.
Alan Munch, of the Santa Maria Valley Veterans Honor Guard, said the guard conducts funeral honors for veterans in the Santa Maria Valley area every few days on average.
Greeted by cheers and applause from a crowd waving American flags, Vice President Mike Pence and Second Lady Karen Pence stepped out of Air Fo…
“We did 109 funerals last year, and 54 so far this year,” he said. “And those are just families that requested our services — many veterans die without their families requesting any sort of military service. So there is a clear need for a veterans cemetery in the area.”
Most of those families end up purchasing plots and headstones in local cemeteries, Munch said.
Bray said it isn’t clear how much money would need to be secured to make the cemetery a reality but Vandenberg is a logical location given the available land that is already owned by the federal government and easy access off of highways 1 and 101.
“If you don’t have to purchase the property, that’s a significant expense reduced,” he said. “The land is here, it’s already owned by the government.”
Bray and other veterans are hoping to raise local support for the proposal so it can move forward.
Fred Hayes of Lompoc spent his 49th birthday inside the Santa Maria Fairpark – taking in the sights of steer and enjoying the annual July spectacle on opening day. He already planned to spend his birthday at the Santa Barbara County Fair anyway.
The establishment of a new veterans cemetery will require passing legislation and will need support from Rep. Salud Carbajal, Bray said.
“At the end of the day, you have to have a champion on this and that has to be our local congressman,” he said.