Since he was killed in Afghanistan 18 months ago, the ashes of Marine Sgt. Michael Guillory have remained at his mother Gina’s Pearl River home.
With the opening of the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Cemetery in Slidell, that soon will change.
Guillory’s remains will be the first to be interred at the new burial ground, which had a grand opening ceremony on Thursday.
The event, which attracted hundreds of veterans and family members to the cemetery, was “bittersweet,” Gina Guillory said.
“He’s been right there at home, still with me,” she said. “But it’s OK. I’ll still be able to come visit him.”
The families of many local veterans eventually will be able to say the same thing. A decade in the making, the cemetery was made possible through a 75-acre donation of land by the Louisiana National Guard. Twenty-one acres are planned for use in the initial development.
The Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs received more than $8 million from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to establish the cemetery, which is adjacent to Camp Villere just north of Interstate 12 in Slidell.
All branches of the military were represented at Thursday’s midday ceremony, which was well-attended, despite temperatures that climbed into the 90s.
To begin the event, dozens of motorcycles, led by members of the Patriot Guard Riders, motored down a road lined with American flags to the cemetery.
Speakers included Steve Muro, undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; Ted Krumm, the cemetery’s director; and St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister. David LaCerte, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs, emceed the event, and Lane Carson, a former secretary of the department, delivered the keynote address.
Carson, a Purple Heart recipient during the Vietnam War, talked about the decade of work that many veterans groups and government officials, both elected and appointed, put into making the cemetery a reality. In return, many thanked Carson as the driving force in the project, from conception to completion.
“We knew Chalmette (National Cemetery) had problems after Hurricane Katrina, and we knew that Biloxi and Baton Rouge were a little too far away (for local veterans to be buried),” he told the crowd. “We needed space for the 100,000 veterans in the six-parish metro New Orleans area. … Now, when the good Lord calls us all, fellow veterans, we have a place to go.”
Muro noted that the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Cemetery is the 91st opened across the U.S. by the VA’s Office of Memorial Affairs.
“These are gardens of stone,” he said. “And each stone tells a story.”
For people such as Gina Guillory, the cemetery will be a memorial not only to her son’s bravery and sacrifice but to all veterans who share the qualities.
Sgt. Guillory’s burial is scheduled for June 21, and a group of Marines he served with will be in town for that ceremony.
“Michael wouldn’t know what to make of this,” his mother said. “He was very much about others. He wasn’t about himself. He’d probably say, ‘What’s all the hoopla for?’ But he would absolutely want to make sure that it was the other ones, the veterans before him, who were honored and thanked.”
Gary Knight, of Slidell, who spent his career in the Army Special Forces, shared the sentiment. He is a lieutenant in the Northshore Honor Guard and said that last week he helped deliver full military honors at his 329th funeral.
“We’ve been waiting for this hallowed ground to come to pass,” Knight said. “We’ve waited a long time for it. It’s great for the community, and it’s great for the veterans. I don’t know if many people realize just how many veterans (live in this area). So, this is great for the community, and it’s great for the veterans. But to come here, to be with comrades and open this facility, it’s a special day.”
The VA grant funded construction of a main entrance, a combined administration and public information center, a maintenance facility, roads, an assembly area, a committal shelter, full casketed gravesites, 2,579 preplaced crypts, 273 cremated-remains gravesites, 480 columbarium niches, memorial and scatter burial areas, landscaping, a memorial walkway and supporting infrastructure.
Select Building Systems Construction handled construction of the cemetery. Meyer Engineering was awarded the contract for architectural and engineering services.
The Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs currently operates two other veterans cemeteries — one in Keithville, just south of Shreveport, and another in Leesville, outside Fort Polk. Planning is underway on another, which will be located in Rayville.