SLIDELL - From the interment of Marine Sgt. Michael Guillory, the first military member buried at the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Cemetery in the Summer of 2014, to the burial of an unclaimed veteran a month ago, Col. Richard R. Dillon, U.S. Army (Ret.) has witnessed how much the dedicated grounds have meant to the surrounding community.
That's why he and many other area veterans are appalled at the possibility of the Rayville and Leesville cemeteries closing due to state budget cuts.
"Our veterans have sacrificed, some for many years, to defend our way of life and to find that their families may not have some place where they can bury their fallen hero in a state or national cemetery is very disappointing," he said.
The current budget bill takes $150,000 from the state's Department of Veterans Affairs. While it seems like a small amount, the state V.A. says it will have big consequences including costing the state $10 million to repay grants used to build the two cemeteries.
Veterans say an even higher cost will come from leaving veterans' families without a close and affordable place to bury and visit their loved ones.
There are also concerns that the proposed cuts may extend beyond affecting those who have already left us to start including those who are still with us. In a parish that has almost 30,000 veterans, leaders say a cut of any kind is unacceptable.
"We believe that they deserve all of the benefits that they receive and any cuts to those would just be a tragedy," said Ronnie Simpson, St. Tammany Parish spokesman and parish Veterans Affairs liaison.
While everyone understands the financial crisis facing the state, no one in St. Tammany thinks veterans should have to fight to protect the privileges they already fought to earn.
Though the Slidell cemetery is safe for now, the veterans community in St. Tammany is working on its own to fund up-keep to the cemetery through a series of fundraisers.
The first is a ride/drive Poker Run on May 20 from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. The event starts at the Veterans Cemetery in Slidell, 34888 Grantham College Drive. The stops will include American Legion Posts and Veterans of Foreign Wars centers in St. Tammany and Washington Parishes. It will end at American Legion Post 185 in Slidell.
The cost is $20 a driver, $10 per passenger, which includes a burger meal at the end. You can register morning of from 8 a.m.-9a.m., or call Col. Dillon at 985-788-2568. All revenue will go toward cemetery landscaping, benches, waste and flower receptacles. Any money raised over those costs go toward the next fundraiser, to begin in 2018.
That effort will be to create a memorial at the cemetery. The St. Tammany Veterans Affairs Council hopes to put out a call to artists for designs before the end of 2017.