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Veterans cemetery to miss target

| Monday, Aug. 16, 2004

A national veterans cemetery in Washington County will not be ready for its first interments by Nov. 11 -- Veterans Day -- as originally planned, the incoming director said Sunday.

"It will open in mid-2005," Gerald Vitela told a group of about 50 veterans during a visit to the Cecil American Legion Post 793. Vitela, speaking on behalf of the National Cemetery Administration, said the delay was caused by a legal review of the project.

Vitela visited yesterday to give the veterans the latest information on the 292-acre site and to let them know how to determine whether they are eligible to be buried in the cemetery.

Vitela, who served in Vietnam, told his fellow veterans that the key to determining eligibility is their discharge papers.

"That piece of paper is gold," he said.

The 300,000 veterans in the Pittsburgh area with an honorable discharge are eligible to be buried at the cemetery. Dependents of veterans -- spouses and children under the age of 21 -- also can be buried there, National Cemetery Association officials have said.

A veteran, spouse or dependent who is deceased can be relocated to the cemetery.

Work soon will begin on the first phase or "fast track" that will include five acres of development, Vitela said. The five acres will have 5,000 burial spaces, 500 cremation areas, a trailer for the administrative offices, a temporary shelter for equipment, a flag pole and a shelter.

Another 75 acres is expected to be developed in two years, Vitela said. The National Cemetery Administration expects 1,500 burials a year in the cemetery.

Since the new Pittsburgh-area cemetery is a national one, any veteran in the United States can be buried there.

The state's only other national cemeteries -- in Philadelphia and at Fort Indiantown Gap -- are at least four hours from Pittsburgh.

Veterans are eligible to receive for free: burial plots, opening and closing of the plots, an outer covering for the casket, an upright white marble monument, a two-line inscription, installation of the stone and perpetual care of it.

Legion Commander Matt Zirwas said he will set up a veterans information center at the American Legion post on Millers Run Road to assist veterans who need to find their discharge papers.

Don Bizzack, 75, of Washington, Washington County, a Korean War veteran who served in the U.S. Army, said he liked what he heard yesterday.

"I would like to be buried in a national veteran cemetery," Bizzack said. "I think it's very nice to be available for veterans in this area."

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