But Thursday’s event, which coincided with the Army’s 243rd birthday, was more like a grand celebration for both landmark occurrences. Dozens of people attended the event — including members of local veterans groups, local leaders, VA employees and many citizens — to see the new administration facility as well as the committal shelter where funerals are held.
Gold Star family members — those who have had relatives killed while serving in the military — were also honored, and they laid a wreath in remembrance of their lost relatives.
The event also included a visit from VA Undersecretary for Memorial Affairs Randy Reeves, who praised the efforts of local officials in supporting the VA cemetery.
“When I was driving over and I was looking at the landscape in the Johnson City area, it was like coming home,” Reeves, an East Mississippi native, said. “It is my honor to be here to help dedicated this beautiful annex that is going to continue the operations of the Mountain Home National Cemetery well into the future. What we’re doing here this morning is a direct reflection of the support, the dedication and the honor that this community bestows upon those who have worn the cloth of our nation.”
Reeves said he was honored to serve veterans in East Tennessee, and that there are plans to continue the cemetery expansion project by starting constructing a columbarium — an above-ground structure designed to hold the urns of those veterans and spouses who choose cremation — in October.
Walker had tried to get the columbarium into the budget for the first phase, but it wasn’t possible at that time. The current annex does, however, add 1,400 casket gravesites and 700 spots for cremains. Seven veterans have already been buried in the cremains section, but casket burials will continue to occur at the original cemetery until that space is full. Walker said casket burials at the new cemetery could start as early as next year.
“It’s in the design phase and it’s a fiscal year 2019 project,” Walker said later. “I would imagine we’d break ground in six months. The veterans have asked for it again and again. The National Cemetery Administration heard them.”
Another coming feature in national cemeteries, Reeves said, is the Legacy project. He said the NCA provides grants to universities to conduct research on veterans buried in national cemeteries and that will ultimately lead to a system where anyone can scan a gravestone with their smart phone or other device and learn the history of that particular veteran.
“You will know what heroes you walk among,” he said.