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Dishonoring the Dead

Increased reports of disrespect at Idaho State Veterans Cemetery

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2011 Memorial Day ProgramMonday, May 30, 10 a.m., Idaho State Veterans Cemetery. Attendees are asked to park vehicles at Optimist Sports Complex, 9889 Hill Road

At 10 a.m., Monday, May 30, hundreds of military veterans will again gather on hallowed ground overlooking Boise to remember their comrades. Memorial Day services at the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery, earnest and solemn, give attendees a rare opportunity to honor men and women who served in six major conflicts.

But the cemetery has also been the scene of other visits that involved neither remembrance nor reverence. Instead, trespassers have been treating the final resting place of more than 3,000 heroes as a picnic area, dog park, sports field or worse.

"Unfortunately, we have had people use the grounds for flag-football practice," said Zach Rodriguez, cemetery director. "I've seen groups bring in barbecue grills to picnic on our upper level. They even lit fireworks up there."

Rodriguez is the strong, silent type. The Army veteran, approaching four years as cemetery director, greets visitors with the firmest of handshakes but comforts mourners with the gentlest of condolences. Talking about violations at his workplace, his voice became softer while his stare became more intense.

"I've seen people come in here to hunt," he said. "The cemetery has been used as a takeoff or landing point for hot air balloons. We had one gentleman ride his horse through here, leaving his horse apples for us to clean up."

Rodriguez breathed a long sigh.

"I've seen people place plywood across gravesite markers to use as a picnic table."

The Ada County Sheriff's Department logged more than two dozen incidents at the cemetery in 2010, most of the calls labeled as "proactive policing," or security checks. This year, 16 incidents have already been logged by sheriff's deputies, with an increasing number of investigations into possible criminal behavior, including vandalism, drunk driving and verbal threats.

"Just last week, I was personally threatened," said Rodriguez. "There was a man out here training his hunting dogs, and he told me that if I got out of my car, he was going to hit me."

Rodriguez said it was difficult at first to convince law enforcement to help him manage the incidents.

"Initially, it was a little rough getting them to understand," said Rodriguez. "They honestly didn't think people would be this bold to do these kinds of things. Ada County attorneys saw much of this as minor, but when you have veterans' families complain, it quickly becomes a major thing. I have had calls from Congressional offices on this. On occasion, I'll hear a complaint that was filed through the National Cemetery Association."

When the NCA calls, Rodriguez listens. The NCA, a division of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, governs the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery, insisting on national shrine standards:

• More than 95 percent of developed acreage has to be weed-free (that's 9.5 acres at the Idaho cemetery without a dandelion).

• Markers must not be any more than 26 inches out of the ground.

• Markers must be in perfect alignment while flowing with the grade of the ground.

"The guidelines we have to follow are very strict," said Rodriguez. "It makes the place look wonderful. But people misconstrue the look as a park-like atmosphere, and they come in here to recreate."

The cemetery is comprised of 78 acres, but only 16 are usable, 10 of which are currently developed for interment (enough to accommodate 40,000 burials). The remaining space includes a section of the Boise Foothills. The cemetery has an easement agreement with the City of Boise because the popular Ridge to Rivers trail is nearby. Some hikers follow animal trails through the back of the cemetery, and the signs are clear: no trespassing. But almost everyone who enters the cemetery passes through the front gate, and that means they walk, ride or drive by nearly a half-dozen signs that say no trespassing, no pets and no recreation.

"I think it's a disconnect when people approach this place," said Rodriguez.

He recently spotted a family taking a bicycle ride into the cemetery.

"A little girl actually pointed to the sign that said 'no bicycles,' but her dad said, 'That doesn't mean us.' I told the girl that she was correct and invited them to park their bikes and walk in."

The most disturbing violations occur when a bicyclist, dog walker or sports enthusiast breezes by one of the many burials that occur at the cemetery. Thirteen interments were held at the cemetery last week. Rodriguez said he averaged two to three burials a day. Some months may have as many as 55 interments.

"When a ceremony is taking place and somebody is riding by with their music going, I can't take that moment back," he said. "I can never give back to a family, that final moment with their loved one. Never."

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