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Amount of federal grant money for veterans cemeteries could double if new bill passes

The Journal Times - 2/5/2020

Feb. 4--*

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UNION GROVE -- More than 16,000 veterans and their family members have been laid to rest at the Southern Wisconsin Veterans Memorial Cemetery in the Town of Dover since it was founded in the mid-1990s. With about 1,000 more interments per year, it is considered the fifth-busiest state cemetery in the U.S.

With veterans from the Vietnam War and other 20th Century conflicts aging, Congress is keeping an eye on, and working on, making sure these state-run veterans cemeteries can continue to be sustainable.

"When that time comes for us to rest in the fellowship of those who went before us, it is great to see that we are doing everything we possibly can to honor our service as they lay us to rest," said Sgt. Zachary Zdroik, a Marine who serves as Racine County's veterans service officer. "I think I can speak for most of us (veterans), but even after our time in the military comes to an end, our service does not."

A bill unveiled Monday by U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil, R-Wis., would double the amount of grant money veterans cemeteries can apply for per year, from $5 million to $10 million. The bill, known as the Veterans Cemetery Grants Improvement Act, was announced for the first time Monday morning to an audience of more than a dozen veterans at American Legion Bixby-Hansen Post 171, 1027 New St., Union Grove.

Both the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars organizations support the bill, said Steil, whose 1st Congressional District includes Racine, Kenosha and Walworth counties.

The first-term congressman noted that the cemeteries aren't in dire need of that more money right now, but believes these grants will be essential as maintenance costs grow, especially considering the constantly growing amount of new interments.

"In southeastern Wisconsin, we have more than 45,000 veterans," he said, noting that he wants to "make sure that our veterans cemetery here ... has the funding that's necessary to be successful."

State Rep. Robert Wittke, R-Wind Point, added: "My parents are buried out at the cemetery. I find it to be a really beautiful memorial ... it's the least we can do to provide them with a home after what they've done for us."

Steil added that part of his motivation here is to get something passed in a Congress that appears to be growing more divided.

Bipartisan effort

Taking care of veterans is something both sides can agree on, he hopes. The co-author on the bill is Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, a nonvoting congressman who represents the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Sablan has previously been elected as a Democrat, but is currently an independent.

Steil is to return to Washington on Wednesday and plans to immediately start seeking co-sponsors on the bill.

"Congress is pretty jammed up," Steil said. "This is a straightforward bill that will help our veterans and families."

Even if this bill passes, it would not immediately lead to more spending. It would have to be included in an appropriations bill in the fall.

But if that happens and the Southern Wisconsin Veterans Memorial Cemetery, 21731 Spring St. (Highway C), gets some grant money, it would add on top of state funding that has grown from $1.88 million for all three of Wisconsin's veterans cemeteries in 2018 up to a projected $2.20 million by 2021.

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(c)2020 The Journal Times, Racine, Wisc.

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