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What NC’s new military agency leader says he’ll do about veterans cemetery in disrepair

Charlotte Observer - 5/8/2024

The new North Carolina secretary of the Department of Military & Veterans Affairs said he will go see for himself a state veterans cemetery that has been criticized for its failure to maintain upkeep.

The Sandhills State Veterans Cemetery had fallen so far behind in maintenance that it drew attention during a community meeting in Spring Lake and legislation from state lawmakers trying to fix it, The News & Observer reported in 2023.

“To the families, I know they’re out there visiting their loved ones: Now, my hope is that the Sandhills, that they are seeing improvements, and I know that they will see further,” Secretary Grier Martin said Tuesday.

Martin, who was appointed to replace Walter Gaskin as secretary in April by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, is also a former longtime Democratic House member. He spoke to lawmakers on Tuesday about his new job.

Lawmakers passed funding to address delayed maintenance at Sandhills State Veterans Cemetery as part of the 2023 state budget, allocating $300,000 “for contract services to address the backlog of work needed at the SSVC.”

Rep. Diane Wheatley, a Cumberland County Republican, sponsored House Bill 178 during the 2023 legislative session that addressed some of the maintenance problems. It passed the House unanimously but stalled in a Senate committee.

Martin said he plans to visit the cemetery soon, possibly when he goes to the recently closed state veterans home in Fayetteville next week.

VA home in Fayetteville

The Department of Military & Veterans Affairs told N&O newsgathering partner ABC11 in November that after they had “identified significant repair needs and structural deficiencies at the Veterans Home located on the federal VA hospital campus in Fayetteville,” the home was set to close, and residents would move to other veterans’ homes in the state.

Martin said all the veterans have moved out and his agency is keeping in contact with them. He also told House members that he didn’t know yet if he’ll recommend that the veterans home in Fayetteville be renovated or torn down, saying it will be “a long process” and he wouldn’t rush it.

As with the veterans’ home, Martin said he wants to see the Sandhills cemetery before deciding what to do.

“I‘ve seen spreadsheets, read reports, but you’ve got to get the ground truth — walk the terrain both at the home and the cemetery,” Martin told reporters after the committee meeting on Tuesday.

Former secretary Gaskin said last year that the salaries of grounds workers at the state veterans cemeteries were “atrocious.” According to the state salary database, in 2023 the annual salary for a grounds worker in the department was $41,451 and now is $43,109. The job entails grounds maintenance as well as tombstone placement and debris cleanup.

Martin said that those who maintain the cemetery “are not just mere groundskeepers or lawn mowers, there is a specific set of skills to maintaining a cemetery at a higher level of dignity and respect (for a state veterans cemetery). ... We’re not there yet, but that’s something that we can make some progress on.”

Martin said that the department has put contracts out for bid related to the additional funding.

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