With a vast meadow in the heart of Pembroke stretching before him, Sen. Charles Schumer envisioned its new purpose. "We stand in front of hallowed ground," he said.
The site has been selected for a new Western New York Veterans Cemetery. This was Schumer's first visit to the location since it was chosen.
“With so many thousands of local veterans,” Schumer continued, “it was an insult to Western New York not to have a National Veterans Cemetery close for loved ones to pay their respects.”
The 132-acre parcel located at Route 77 and Indian Falls Road, Pembroke, is about 100 miles closer to Western New Yorkers than its sister in Bath, Steuben County.
At a gathering Monday, Schumer, alongside former military members and their families, proposed the new site to be named after local war hero William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan.
“ ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan is a true Western New York Hero,” Schumer said. “I cannot think of any better way to commorate his life and honor our region’s veterans than by naming the Western New York Veterans Cemetery the ‘General William Donovan Western New York Veterans’ Cemetery.' ”
However, not all veterans received the proposed name with enthusiasm.
“Placing a name on a building is nice,” Joy Joyce, Oakfield-Alabama American Legion Post 626 vice commander, said. “But what makes this general any more important than other veterans?”
“It doesn't matter who it's named for, it’s what it stands for,” said Vietnam Veterans of America New York State Council Western District Director Ted Wilkinson. “General Donovan is a respected man and deserves to be recognized. He should be an inspiration for people to come here.”
“I look at it as, by giving (the cemetery) an individual name, it gives it a tourist-attraction appeal,” said veterans advocate Patrick Welch. “By using a name, it will give people an opportunity to do the research; it's a way to honor an individual. From a historical standpoint, Donovan’s career (and its impact) spans the 1800s to the 21st Century.”
Donovan was born to immigrant parents in Buffalo, and attended St. Joseph Collegiate Institute and Niagara University. He remains the only American to earn all four of the highest military awards in the United States: The Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the National Security Medal. Furthermore, he earned the Silver Star and Purple Heart, as well as honors from several other nations for his service during both World War I and II.
Additionally, Donovan founded the Office of Strategic Services, currently known as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
“We are alive today because of Bill Donovan,” Schumer said. “People don’t realize it, but praise God there hasn’t been another terrorist incident that succeeded like the one on 9/11. That’s because our CIA, as well as our NSA, our Navy SEALs, and all of our armed forces have done a great job.
“(The terrorists) have tried,” he continued. “Believe me, I read the intelligence documents. I know. But because these people (CIA) are so good and unknown ... people don’t know one tenth of what they know, and it all started with Bill Donovan.”
In addition to the 132 acres currently procured, Robert and Frances Haegar have offered their 60-acre plot of land adjacent to the cemetery -- to enlarge the site to the 200 acres originally wanted. Robert Haegar is a 30-year veteran with the Navy Reserves.
“The land was my grandfathers farm,” Frances Haegar said. “It needs to have a purpose. We can’t do anything with it and it hurts me to see it go wild. It feels great for the land to be used for a veterans' cemetery.
“My father helped with this land. I spent my childhood here,” she continued. “It is a pretty site and it needs something to put it back to a nice site.”
The 60 acres will not only increase the size of the cemetery, but will also allow for better access.
“Hopefully we will live long enough to see this completed,” she said.
According to Schumer, the hope is that groundbreaking will take place at some point next year and 2016 for the first veteran to be interned.
“There is an old saying,” Wilkinson said. “Never judge a vet by the medals on his chest.”