The military is in Wilma Hall-McKenzie’s blood. “I’ve been an Army brat all my life. My dad was in the Army for 30 years, and my husbands were both in the Army,” says Hall-McKenzie.
She first moved to the Central Coast in 1953 when her father was stationed at Fort Ord. Life as a military daughter, and later a military wife has taken her all over the world, but always brought her back here.
So when her mom died in 2000, then her dad in 2009 and her second husband in 2012, there was really no question as to what to do with their ashes.
“I’m hanging on to them. I’m keeping them at home until the cemetery opens,” says Hall-McKenzie.
After more than twenty years of planning, the Central Coast Veterans Cemetery ceremonially broke ground last Friday on open space on the former Fort Ord. Hall-McKenzie is one of several dozen Monterey Peninsula widows who have saved ashes waiting for the day when this cemetery finally opens.
“It’s home. Just knowing that they’re close, it’s comforting,” says Hall-McKenzie.
“This was sort of the simple dream that became the impossible dream,” says Congressman Sam Farr. “We thought, base closure, it’s federally owned land, they can transfer the land free to the Department of Veterans Affairs. VA builds veterans cemeteries, no brainer.”
But with a Veterans Cemetery about 70 miles away in the Central Valley, the VA had no interest in building one here.
So the approach that ultimately worked was getting the state to build it with a combination of federal, local and state funds. Congressman Farr secured nearly $6.8-million from the federal government after State Senator Bill Monning got about $2-million from the state, and roughly $1-million was raised locally.
“We hit a lot of points where people said, ‘you’re not going to be able to do it’, and here we are not just breaking ground, but with contracts in place. The cemetery will be built,” says Senator Monning.
In all, it will cost about $9.4-million to build phase one of the project, which is set to open in July of next year. It includes construction of the main entrance, roads and a vault with 5,000 spots for cremated remains. Phase two of the project will include in-ground burials.
“The full build out will be roughly, another $20-million. So we are starting our effort on that now,” says Carmel Mayor Jason Burnett who works on the capital campaign that helped raise the local money.
That effort recently got a $1.1-million donation from the estate of a Watsonville couple, and Burnett says completing phase one will put this project at the front of the line for future state and federal funding. But to complete the full build out of all 78 acres, the federal government also has to see a need.
“I think there clearly is the need because all the men and women who’ve served here, all the men and women and their families, the veterans, who call the central coast their home, and recognizing that this is the only available veterans cemetery anywhere on this part of the central coast,” says Mayor Burnett.
The Central Coast Veterans Cemetery Foundation has an informal list of 250 people from across the country who want this to be their final resting place. And there are also the local widows like Judith Quinones.
Her husband Abel served in the Navy and spent the last years of his life working with other local veterans to make this cemetery a reality. So when she places his ashes in the cemetery next year, it will not be the end.
“I’m not going to stop at that point because there’s so much more that has to be done for those that will be on ground burial. You can’t stop at the ashes. We have to go on and get the rest done,” says Quinones.
Contributions to Central Coast Veterans Cemetery Foundation can be made online or mailed to CCVCF, PO Box 849, Marina, CA 93933