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June 25, 2018 10:20 PM

Hallowed Ground

South Dakota is one of five states in the country without a state Veterans cemetery. 

That could change soon after commitments from both South Dakota and the City of Sioux Falls.

You may be familiar with the Black Hills National Cemetery just outside of Sturgis. This pristine, manicured facility, built in 1948, is expanding soon and hosts roughly three burials a day for Veterans and their families. 

Three-hundred and sixty-seven miles away, on the other side of the state in northeastern Sioux Falls, a similar cemetery is being proposed.  

"This isn't for Veterans for today. This is for Veterans for tomorrow and our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren. This is for decades to come," Vietnam Veteran Ken Teunissen said. 

Teunissen is a Vietnam Veteran with a Purple Heart and steely determination. 

"There's shrapnel in my leg yet today," Teunissen said. 

He takes his service seriously and has been an advocate for fellow Veterans for 30 years. 

"Lucky to be alive. Thank God that I am still alive and made it through there without being a casualty or killed in action," Teunissen said. 

As the Vice President of the South Dakota Veterans Council and a Sioux Falls resident, he's been lobbying for a Veterans Cemetery for east river men and women for years. 

"Almost inexpressible but it's a place of hallowed ground and to be laid to rest there among our fellow veterans is an honor," Teunissen said.

Teunissen's efforts and those of fellow Veterans have been met with a wave of support recently. Sioux Falls City Council member Rick Kiley says from city officials to the state legislature and Senate Bill 91, there are several groups coming together to get something done.  

"The former Mayor, the current Mayor, so it's been a true collaborative effort and one that's been, one that's near and dear to my heart as well too. It's probably the favorite project I've worked on in my four years as a councilor," Kiley said. 

Kiley has been instrumental in helping the Veterans find this piece of land just northeast of the I-90, I-229 interchange. Once meant for a City of Sioux Falls water project, the plan is now to gift 60 acres to the state for the cemetery. Kiley's motivation for the project comes from being the son of a World War II Vet. 

"It wasn't until two weeks before his death that he talked to me about his role in the Normandy invasion and even then he couldn't talk about it. I really wish he was here today to see this happening," Kiley said. 

There are still several steps remaining before the Veterans cemetery becomes reality. Aaron Pollard, the Deputy Secretary of the South Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs and an Army Vet, says a pre-application for a roughly $6 million grant has just been submitted. 

"The main chunk we need and that's what will come from the National Cemetery Association. That will give us everything we need to start construction," Pollard said.

Pollard says we'll hear if the application is actionable this fall. Meanwhile, the state has committed to providing $600,000.  An additional $3 million needs to be raised in five years for the cemetery's endowment fund. That will cover what it will cost to operate the facility each year. 

"It's exciting. It's a beautiful location out here. You can hear the birds chirping and it's raining a little bit and the winds blowing. Can you imagine one day looking over this hill and the white marble headstones for our heroes and a big American flag. It will just be a great thing," Pollard said. 

A necessity for an underserved population in eastern South Dakota. Out of the 65,000 Veterans in the state, more than 40,000 reside in the east. 

"I feel we've been negligent as far as the state in the past and not getting this and doing it. The young individuals that are signing up for the armed forces today, God bless them, now they know that there's going to be some place where they can be laid to rest close to home," Teunissen said. 

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