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Camp Ripley, Minn. — In 1996, Dave Swantek took over as director of the state veterans' cemetery north of Little Falls. It was a dusty, weed-choked piece of prairie with a few hundred misaligned headstones between the Mississippi River and a busy highway. Swantek was only 25 at the time, and remembers doing all the work by hand.
"When I started the only equipment on site was a hand shovel and a rake," Swantek says. "Nothing to lift headstones. So it was almost impossible to run the operation."
Six years later, things look much better. Now, 1,400 granite headstones sit neatly aligned in a perfectly landscaped area. Swantek is overseeing a $3.5 million facelift and expansion of the cemetery. Workers are installing curbs and gutters and planting hundreds of trees. There will be a new facility for offices, and a large chapel for memorial services.
Swantek says the cemetery will also have more room for cremated remains. In total, the cemetery expansion will add burial room for 20,000 veterans.
That kind of expansion is something that can't happen at the state's other veterans' cemetery. Ft. Snelling National Cemetery at Minneapolis is expected to run out of space in 2025. Bob McCollum is director of the cemetery, the fourth-busiest national cemetary in the country. At an average of 16 burials a day, it will be full in less than 25 years. McCollum says expansion is not an option.
"Ft. Snelling is right across the street from Minneapolis-St. Paul airport," McCollum says. "They border our north end, and we have the Hubert H. Humphrey airport bordering our western side. And we are surrounded by interstates on our other sides."
It's clear the country is running short of space at its existing veterans' cemeteries. The National Cemetery Association has planned new cemeteries for several parts of the country, but no new national cemeteries are planned for Minnesota.
The government is paying to expand the cemetery at Camp Ripley because of the surge in veteran deaths.
The State Veterans' Cemetery in central Minnesota may ease a portion of the burden at Ft. Snelling, but that won't be enough. Ft. Snelling has 4,500 burials a year, and Camp Ripley could only handle about 300 at the most.
Herb Schmidtbauer, 68, is a Korean War veteran eligible for burial at Ft. Snelling. But he's already made plans to be buried at the state veterans' cemetery at Camp Ripley. When the time comes, he wants to be laid to rest near home.
"I'm certainly hoping it's a long time before I need it, but it's nice to know where I'm going to be," Schmidtbauer says. "I get a real serene feeling when I drive out that way because I just love this part of the country."
The expansion of the Minnesota State Veterans' Cemetery at Camp Ripley is expected to be complete by spring. The project will keep the cemetery in business for at least 50 years. That should provide space for World War II Veterans, whose deaths are expected to peak in six years. In the years to come, it will also give veterans from wars in Korea, Vietnam and even the Gulf war a final resting place.