Sandoval County radiated confidence when it appeared the Veterans Administration would select Rio Rancho for the state's third national military cemetery.
The need was evident with the VA's Santa Fe National Cemetery nearing capacity and the 19-acre Fort Bayard National Cemetery tucked into faraway southwest New Mexico. Local governments and veterans' groups were on board, an adjacent memorial was being discussed, and the chosen 340-acre site in northwest Rio Rancho was on available state land.
As far back as 2017, New Mexico's Congressional delegation was fully on board with locating the cemetery in Sandoval County. Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall and then-U.S. Representatives Ben Ray Lujan, Michelle Lujan Grisham and Steve Pearce wrote a letter urging Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin to pick Sandoval County for the new cemetery.
They wrote that the site was accessible and provided "an idyllic setting" for the cemetery.
"The site will also complement other Veteran services and memorials in Sandoval County," they wrote, mentioning the pictorial memorial to county veterans in Bernalillo spearheaded by the Sandoval County Historical Society and county commission.
The process for selecting a site eventually advanced so far the State Land Office (SLO) held an August 2022 public meeting for comments on selling the site in northwest Rio Rancho. SLO then scheduled a sealed-bid public auction on Oct. 7 asking a minimum of $2.4 million.
Yet when the VA's National Cemetery Administration announced its selection on March 10, it heralded a site west of Albuquerque between Interstate 40 and Double Eagle II Airport. The news was upsetting if not surprising for Sandoval County officials and administrators.
"I kind of felt like we were just led to believe we're going to the prom with a certain person, and they just dumped us at the very end," Commissioner Jay Block, R-Rio Rancho, a retired Air Force officer, fulminated during the May 10 commission meeting. "It was not the state of New Mexico. It was not the land commissioner that screwed us over.
"It was our own Veterans Administration."
Block called on County Manager Wayne Johnson to look into what happened and report back at a future meeting.
But was Sandoval County "screwed" by the VA? Everything seemed on track right up to the Oct. 7 land auction with bids due the day before.
"A few minutes before 5 p.m. on October 6, 2022, the VA contacted us and informed us it would not be submitting a bid on the parcel after all," SLO Assistant Commissioner of Communications Joey Keefe said. "We were surprised that the VA decided not to bid on the parcel.
"However, we were happy to hear it was able to find another location in Albuquerque to build a cemetery for New Mexico’s veterans."
Initially, the VA's only public comment on its decision was in an environmental assessment, which stated, "the property acquisition process … stalled and the process was terminated."
However, that last email from the VA Real Property Service time stamped at 4:57 p.m. that day indicates the VA feared losing the auction and cut a deal with the Albuquerque landowners while still teasing a deal with Sandoval County.
"VA has secured a site that meets all of the requirements listed in the original Request for Proposals seeking land," Marianne Marinucci wrote the SLO. "By moving forward with a property that meets all of those requirements, VA is now guaranteed to acquire land for the National Cemetery."
Marinucci also said during the August public meeting she made clear the VA was looking at alternate sites in case the auction failed. The SLO received no other bids.
"My issue is not so much they moved to Bernalillo County," Johnson told the Signpost. "My issue is they played us off each other to get a better deal."
The VA later acknowledged concerns over the uncertain outcome of an auction but noted other factors affected choosing a site, like accessibility, potential construction issues and veteran demographics.
"Several other considerations also weighed in favor of the Albuquerque land, including safer cemetery access from secondary roads, lower anticipated construction costs on a flatter property, and not being landlocked by residential development," Les' A. Melnyk, chief of public affairs outreach for the National Cemetery Administration told the Signpost. "With land now purchased, VA will be able to immediately move forward with developing a new cemetery, allowing us to serve the Veterans of the Santa Fe/Albuquerque area without interruption as Santa Fe National Cemetery approaches capacity."
As Sandoval County faded from contention, the VA took a second look at 230 privately owned acres just outside Albuquerque's city limits. An environmental assessment dated Feb. 6 found no significant environmental or cultural issues for the land across Atrisco Vista from Petroglyph National Monument.
According to its news release, the VA paid $2.8 million for the land sold by UP II LLC, a company formed in November 2021. While the company lists its contact address in Scottsdale, Ariz., its registered agent is Ted Garrett of Albuquerque.
Garrett is also president of the Garrett Group Inc., a major real estate and investment company founded in 1990. Garrett Group touts its ability to negotiate multimillion-dollar land deals and public-private joint ventures.
The Arizona address is also the headquarters of a Garrett Development Corporation, which state records suggest now owns a vast swatch of the former Atrisco Land Grant west of Albuquerque.
One proposed feature of the Rio Rancho cemetery retired Army Col. David C'de Baca hopes carries over to the Albuquerque cemetery is recognition of Indigenous veterans. Notable among them are two Diné (Navajo) women who served as Army scouts in the 1880s and are considered the first enlisted women in the U.S. military.
Volunteers uncovered their stories while working to identify Sandoval County veterans from all wars. The veteran stories and photos now line the lobby of the County Administration Building.
"We need to get some recognition for the community that was not erased, is still here but never got the recognition for what they did," C'De Baca said. "From the Indigenous perspective, and from the pueblos along the Rio Grande, this is their region."
Regardless of location, opening the cemetery remains important and more convenient for the thousands of veterans in the area, he added.
Deciding a permanent name for the cemetery is up to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough after consultation with area veterans groups. By federal law, it must be a geographic name rather than a person.
Planning and designing the cemetery is expected to last into 2025 with the facility opening two years after that, according to the VA.
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