Dirt finally is being dug at the future Omaha National Cemetery.

Earth-moving machines have begun clawing out space for roads, buildings, drainage and, eventually, graves in the center of the site at 144th Street and Schram Road, south of Interstate 80 in western Sarpy County.

The long-awaited cemetery also has its first employee: Director Cindy Van Bibber, a Grand Island native, who set up shop Sept. 8 in a temporary trailer on the south side of the property.

"It's nice to know it's actually happening," Van Bibber said. "We've been talking about it for so long."

The cemetery has been discussed for more than a decade, but it wasn't possible because of a Department of Veterans Affairs rule dictating that at least 170,000 veterans live within a 75-mile radius of any proposed cemetery. The nearest national cemetery is 175 miles south in Leavenworth, Kansas, and the only other one in Nebraska is in Maxwell, 270 miles west of Omaha.

Eastern Nebraska and western Iowa fell well short of that threshold. But at the urging of Nebraska's congressional delegation, the Obama administration relaxed those rules in 2009 and began budgeting for the cemetery the next year.

Choosing a site proved controversial. Some community leaders in Springfield, just south of the cemetery, worried that it wouldn't fit in near future industrial development planned in the Highway 50 corridor. And some Bellevue-area veterans preferred a site in that city, nearer to Offutt Air Force Base.

In 2012, a VA committee selected the 144th Street site and the agency purchased it for $6.2 million. The cemetery is set in rolling hills that had been used for farming. The eastern part of the property will continue as cropland until it is needed.

"This is going to be one magnificent site," Van Bibber said. "I don't think they could have found a prettier piece of property than this one."

Sticking with its previous schedule, the VA plans to open a small portion of the cemetery for in-ground burials about a year from now, Van Bibber said. A temporary administrative and maintenance center will be built near the entrance, along Schram just east of 144th.

Schram currently is a gravel road, but Van Bibber said the VA will pave it from 144th to the cemetery gate.

Builders will continue with construction on the first phase of the cemetery into 2018. That will include a circle and memorial walkway, 5,500 in-ground and above-ground plots for casketed and cremated remains, permanent administrative and maintenance buildings, an honor-guard building, a flagpole assembly area and a public information center with an electronic gravesite locator. It will cost $28.9 million and cover 60 acres.

There will be space for expansion, Van Bibber said. Ultimately there will be space for thousands more burial sites.

Any veteran who left the service with anything other than a dishonorable discharge is eligible for a burial plot, opening and closing of the grave, a marker and permanent, professional care, Van Bibber said. Spouses are eligible for free burial, too, as are minor and adult children who become permanently disabled before age 23.

Spaces cannot be reserved in a national cemetery. Van Bibber said plots are provided as they are available, though spouses will be buried together.

Burials may be scheduled through the VA's national call center in St. Louis (800-5351117). A DD214 military discharge certificate is required, but Van Bibber said the VA will help to obtain one for veterans or their family members who don't have one.

For Van Bibber, the return to Nebraska is a dream come true.

She left Grand Island in the early 1980s, at age 19, to join the Army, seeking wider horizons and a way to pay for college.

She stayed for 10 1/2 years, a spell that included assignments in South Korea, Kansas and Belgium. She worked at a state veterans cemetery near Richmond, Virginia, from 1997 to 2006 before joining the VA.

Van Bibber has served at four VA cemeteries in the Western U.S., most recently as assistant director of Riverside National Cemetery in California.

Ever since she heard that a cemetery would be built near Omaha, Van Bibber hoped she would be back in Nebraska.

"I jokingly told my colleagues 'I'm going to open that cemetery,'" she said.

"Now here I am, right here in my home state. One day I plan to be buried here as well."

For the moment, her makeshift office is a lonely place. But she is eager to talk to civic groups and tell them about the benefits of VA cemeteries. Van Bibber also hopes to work with school groups and to recruit volunteers to support the cemetery.

"There'll be plenty of things for people to do," she said.

Local veterans couldn't be happier to see construction begin. Allen Holley, a Korean War-era vet from Bellevue, was so excited to learn that Van Bibber had arrived, he visited her office last week and arranged an invitation for her to speak in October at Richmont Village, his retirement community.

"People here will be thrilled this is finally coming to pass," he said.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1186,

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