Bitter battle over VA plans at Crown Hill National Cemetery

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.—A bitter battle continues between the Indiana Forest Alliance and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) over a project at Crown Hill National Cemetery.

The VA purchased a 14.75-acre plot of land from the cemetery in September 2015, with plans to develop it into a veteran memorial. The land is made up of a dense, old-growth forest with some trees as old as 300 years, but most of that forestation would be torn down.

According to early project plans by the VA’s final environmental assessment, the site would contain columbarium walls to hold cremated remains, a flagpole area, a small public information area, restroom building and entrance road way. The plans also call for additional columbarium walls to be added every 10 years as the need grows.

The Indiana Forest Alliance (IFA) has been protesting the project since last summer. Members argue that the VA should have looked for alternative locations so that the North Woods could be saved.

But a federal judge recently denied their attempts to halt the project in court.

Hon. Jane Magnus-Stinson, Chief Justice United States District Court Southern District of Indiana wrote in her decision that the IFA overstated the potential environmental damages in their complaint:

“It is clear from the record, however, that the public—here, at the very least, families of deceased Veterans—does have an interest in the Project proceeding because it will create burial space for Veterans who have served our country and the current national cemetery in Indianapolis is at capacity. While some trees would be cut down to facilitate the Project, IFA ignores that 70% of larger trees will remain and that the Project will results in a solemn space surrounded by nature that the public can enjoy.”

The executive director of the IFA says the fight is not over one or two trees, it’s about saving an entire forest.

“You’re not going to have a forest lest, and this fight has been about the forest. It’s never been about a particular set of trees here and there,” said Jeff Stant, IFA executive director, “It’s been about the forest and how old it is as a forest ecosystem—and that’s what’s going to be wiped out.”

Stant can walk through the woods and describe the different types of trees and greenery. He can tell you how they got there, what used to be here, and what species are native to this part of the state.

“It’s just such a shame that we would be tearing them down today to honor the very people who have served to protect this country and its heritage who have been willing to put their lives on the line for that,” Stant added.

The IFA has garnered the support of a number of local Hoosier veterans.

Paul Richard serves of the IFA advisory committee, he’s also an Army Veteran who lives in the Indianapolis area. Richard questions why the VA chose the forest over open land in other parts of Crown Hill National Cemetery, or open land in other nearby cemeteries.

“It’s tearing down life,” said Richard, “It’s about death not tearing down life. It’s about taking care of those soldiers, those veterans in a place that doesn’t ruin something.”

Fellow Veteran Jeff Piper has joined in on the cause to protest the VA’s plans. He lives in the Crown Hill neighborhood and works daily with at-risk vets throughout the city.

“The illustrious judge—she really isn’t speaking for veterans,” Piper explained that he and the veterans he knows don’t agree with the project’s plans. Instead of spending the money to build a memorial to honor the dead, Piper argues that the VA should use the money to help living veterans.

“Don’t come in here and put a bunch of pavement, a bunch of concrete. If I envision what they had planned it’s almost like a prison—that’s how I see it too much concrete. This is free, this is what we’re veterans for—for the free,” Piper added.

The IFA hosted a candlelight vigil at the North Woods Monday night. While the IFA says it plans to appeal the judge’s decision to deny their injunction, members are not optimistic it’ll be successful.

The VA couldn’t be reached for comment on the matter, but a VA report issued September 9, 2015 reads: “The establishment of a columbarium closer to the urban core will better serve Veterans and families currently facing distance and times changes regarding the existing national cemeteries within their service areas.”