Calling it a place to pay tribute to veterans, several Utah dignitaries broke ground Saturday morning for a 23-acre park and cemetery at Camp Williams.

Maj. Gen. George P. Holm, who led the ceremony, said the cemetery is long overdue. Utah is one of only four states without an official burial place for war veterans.The architect for the project, Kevin Scholz, said, "The cost of freedom is high." He called the cemetery a "small payment on a debt that can never fully be paid."

He said the veterans' park will serve two purposes: It will be a sacred place of honored burial, and it will be a freedom shrine.

Former Gov. Scott Matheson said the groundbreaking represented a culmination of a lot of commitment. He said the cemetery was a project that was destined not to fail, regardless of the barriers. He said it is unusual for him to attend such occasions in his role as former governor, but said he has been very involved in the project, both as governor and since leaving office.

"The veterans of Utah deserve great commendation for their commitment that brings us here today," Matheson said.

"It's real great," said participant John Davis, a World War II veteran who is a sergeant of arms for the 48th Post-Legion in Payson. He is a survivor of the Baatan Death March in the Philippines on April 9, 1942, and spent years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.

"When you've been through what I've been through, you're really happy to see something like this," Davis said of the veteran's cemetery and park.

Project supporters say plans for a veterans' cemetery have been in the works for nearly 30 years, with an intense push coming in the last eight years.

Harold F. Graber, director of the Veterans Administration's Cemetery Grants Program, said, "America's defense is not anonymous." He called for a reaffirmation of the devotion that Americans feel for veterans.

Graber said a national system of cemeteries was set up in 1862, under President Abraham Lincoln, so a "grateful nation" could recognize its veterans.

Another backer of the cemetery was Rep. Nolan Karras, R-Roy, House majority leader. He told the crowd of about 300 that he was emotional thinking about the project while driving to the groundbreaking ceremony. And he paid tribute to Maj. George E. Wahlen, Utah's only living recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Karras recounted how Wallen risked his own life to aid 14 wounded soldiers. Wahlen is one "who has been worthy of the name veteran," he said.

Gov. Norm Bangerter told the audience to bring their children to the park when it is finished and "instill in them the deep feeling of patriotism that we all ought to feel."

In addition to the speeches, the groundbreaking also included a flyover salute by F-16 aircraft from Hill Air Force Base and three Cobra helicopters from the Utah Army National Guard, and a cannon salute.

About 160,000 veterans live in Utah. Holm said about 40 percent will choose to be buried in a veterans' cemetery, Holm said. Veterans and their spouses will be eligible to be buried there.

The $1.2 million project will include a special building for memorial services, as well as statues, plaques and a reflecting pond. The architect said it will be visible from I-15 both night and day.

Although federal and state money will fund most of the project, $200,000 is still needed. Holm said commemorative deeds to the park are being sold for a minimum $10 contribution. Those who donate more than $100 will have their names engraved on a special "honor roll" in the park, Holm said.