- Associated Press - Sunday, July 31, 2016

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - A long-awaited national cemetery for U.S. military veterans and their families south of Omaha will be dedicated this week before accepting its first burials this fall.

The Omaha National Cemetery will be dedicated Friday at an off-site ceremony in Sarpy County.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is expected to complete an initial segment of several acres of the property to be used for in-ground casket and cremation burials as early as September, cemetery director Cindy Van Bibber said.

“Toward the end of August … we’re going to start allowing them to schedule services,” Van Bibber said Friday.

The VA began taking calls for the first burials at the Omaha cemetery on June 6, Van Bibber said. By Friday, families of 100 veterans had contacted cemetery officials to establish a case for burial at the cemetery along South 144th Street.

“We actually have someone from 1996 that has been waiting for burial,” she said.

The first phase of construction is expected to open about 60 acres to provide burial options for 10 years, she said. National cemeteries provide burial spaces for honorably discharged veterans, their spouses and eligible dependents at no charge.

The entire 236-acre cemetery, once complete, will serve the burial needs of more than 112,000 veterans in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa for the next 100 years. The closest national cemetery is about 180 miles away in Leavenworth, Kansas.

Area veterans have been eagerly awaiting the opening of the national cemetery, said Korean War veteran Allen Holley, 84.

Holley, a member of the Bellevue Cemetery Committee who purchased his burial plot there years ago, had been involved in the early planning of the national cemetery, but had to beg off for health reasons when asked to serve on the Omaha National Cemetery Committee. That has not kept him from singing the praises of the new veterans cemetery.

“There is a tremendous amount of interest in it,” said Holley, who lives in an assisted living facility in Bellevue. “We have about 100 residents here, and the vast majority of them are military. I just absolutely know that they and their wives are going to be choosing Omaha National Cemetery for their burial.”

Jim Skaja, 90, of Bellevue, is a veteran of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars who has been tapped to lead the Pledge of Allegiance at Friday’s ceremony.

He said the new cemetery is drawing lots of interest from veterans he knows - particularly Air Force retirees from Offutt Air Force Base south of Omaha. “I’m sure it’s going to be my future home,” he said.

Plans for the cemetery had been in the works for more than a decade, but officials weren’t able to move on them because of a rule requiring at least 170,000 veterans to live within a 75-mile radius of the proposed cemetery site.

President Barack Obama’s administration relaxed the rule in 2009 and started budgeting for the cemetery the next year. A committee selected the site south of Interstate 80 and purchased it for $6.2 million in 2012.

Last fall, excavators began digging to clear space for roads, buildings, drainage and graves.

Even with this fall’s opening, construction will continue into 2018 on the first phase of the cemetery, which will include 5,500 in-ground and above-ground plots for casketed and cremated remains. The site also will include permanent administrative and maintenance buildings, an honor-guard building and a public information center.

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