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New project ends bathroom controversy at Fargo National Cemetery

Facilities planned for the Fargo National Cemetery now include a heated bathroom with a flushable toilet and electricity.

Sen. John Hoeven speaks at a podium with four other men standing beside him.
Sen. John Hoeven speaks at a press conference at the Fargo Air Museum on Friday, Sept. 9, 2022.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum
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FARGO — Tensions between the Veterans Administration and the Fargo Memorial Honor Guard appear to have ended Friday, Sept. 9, after Sen. John Hoeven announced new plans for the Fargo National Cemetery.

Striving to emulate the North Dakota Veteran Cemetery in Mandan, the Fargo National Cemetery in Harwoood, which serves the state of North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota, is not to be considered a rural project when the metro area has a quarter of a million people, said Hoeven, R-N.D.

“We have now gotten the VA to agree to permanent bathroom facilities, and we’re on our way to 35 acres,” Hoeven said during a press conference at the Fargo Air Museum. “A rural cemetery isn’t what we need. We need a really great veteran cemetery.”

The Fargo National Cemetery was part of the rural burial initiative and is overseen by the Fort Snelling National Cemetery Complex, said David Huth, director of Fort Snelling National Cemetery Complex.

Hoeven announced that his office has secured funding and approval from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to build a fully developed restroom with running water, a flushable toilet, heat and electricity at the cemetery.

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Hoeven also announced that the National Cemetery Association is working to acquire the additional land to ensure adequate burial space in the future. Some of the land will be owned by the city of Fargo, which will help the cemetery procure federal grants, Hoeven said.

Mayor Tim Mahoney said that with an area that has one of the highest numbers of people serving in the military, the city was proud to be part of the project.

The tensions in recent months have revolved around a vaulted restroom proposal by the VA that was part of a $250,000 enhancement project. The current project, which includes wind walls and a storage space, is expected to be finished by the end of 2022.

The opposing side, led by members within the Fargo Memorial Honor Guard, argued that building the restroom without electricity and running water at Fargo National Cemetery was the equivalent of constructing an outhouse in the same soil where veterans are buried.

At the same time, the Fargo Memorial Honor Guard led a major fundraising drive to build a gathering center adjacent to the cemetery with a chapel, indoor restrooms, storage, a meeting and gathering room and a proposed Native American veteran ceremonial area next to the structure.

The fundraising effort has collected about half of the $2.5 million needed, said fundraiser for the Fargo Memorial Honor Guard Jim Graalum. Now, Graalum is tasked with raising even more money, he said.

“So, once we get the land purchased, I will go and fundraise more millions,” he said.

The controversy between the VA and the Fargo Memorial Honor Guard began in October 2019 but in recent months became heated, Huth said in July.

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He claimed some members of the Fargo Memorial Honor Guard became hostile over the differences of opinion, saying, “If you cross them, they will come after you.”

Additionally, Jason Hicks, a leader in the Fargo Memorial Honor Guard and a deputy at the Clay County Sheriff’s Department, was suspended from volunteer work with the Honor Guard for six months because of such “attacks,” Huth said.

Hoeven said Hicks' suspension has not been changed, but that he is working with the VA to resolve that issue and others.

Tom Krabbenhoft, spokesperson for the Fargo Memorial Honor Guard, said, “Today is the furthest we’ve moved the football. Our No. 1 goal is to take care of the veterans and their families. We have only one chance to get this national cemetery done right; we won’t get a second chance to do it.”

Marvin J. Nicklay, a veteran who served more than 43 years with the Army National Guard and has been a volunteer for Honor Guard work since 1963, said it was time to “move on and get things taken care of for them (veterans and their families).”

Graalum and Hoeven said North Dakota State University students are behind the designs of the new expansion, which have not been made public.

“If this concept can come together, I think people will want to be a part of it," Hoeven said.

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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