MIDDLETOWN — Officials broke ground Tuesday at the State Veterans Cemetery on two projects totaling $8.6 million that are designed to expand and beautify the Bow Lane grounds.

As the wind whipped on a brisk afternoon with a bright sun overhead, firefighters held tight against their backs the edges of a 60-foot American flag hoisted high from the South Fire District ladder truck off Bow Lane.

“This is a sacred place,” Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman said during the groundbreaking ceremony.

“The men and women interred here made tremendous sacrifices to Connecticut and our nation. We will serve them as they served us, and ensure they have a final resting place where the families can come to reflect and remember,” she said.

Civil engineering firm Fuss & O’Neill of Manchester prepared the design for the improvements project, which includes raising, realigning and cleaning more than 7,000 headstones, as well as improving the turf throughout the grounds as part of a federal grant.

Construction on that portion of the project is estimated to be finished by February 2020. It is being paid for by a $3.18 million federal grant.

“This is an important milestone as we continue to honor those who have given so much,” said George Eisenbach Jr., director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, National Cemetery Administration.

He retired with the rank of first sergeant after serving 23 years in the U.S. Army, said Thomas J. Saadi, acting commissioner of the state Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Let us remember always the debt to the deceased American soldiers can be best paid by kindness in regard to the living American soldiers,” Eisenbach said.

Also, an expansion grant will allow for the addition of 2,000 vaults, repairs of the ground’s irrigation system and a new roadway that leads to the cemetery. That work, which will cost $5.45 million, is expected to be complete by the end of the year.

The ceremony, which began with the posting of colors by the Marine Corps League, marked the first day of construction for the expansion and appearance improvement for the grounds.

“Thank the veterans in your life while you still have the chance and bring your children and grandchildren here so they can learn to appreciate the service and sacrifice of others so they can, too, grow to understand that freedom is not free,” Eisenbach told those gathered.

At the conclusion of the short program, Wyman, Mayor Dan Drew, Saadi, Bud Salemi, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Administrative Services, and project designers and contractors shoveled dirt from a mound of earth during a ceremonial groundbreaking.

Chaplain, Vietnam veteran and member of Middletown’s Veterans of Vietnam Wars and American Legion Post 75 Jerry Augustine spoke from personal experience during his benediction.

“They teach us to dedicate ourselves to the things for which they fought and died,” he said of the servicemen and women interred in the cemetery.

“This is absolutely wonderful,” he said following the event. “The dedication that Middletown has to expand this cemetery means so much to all our veteran groups in Middletown that the state does this for us.”

He paused to look out over a large field of simple white headstones nearby, where, for national Wreaths Across America Day Saturday, several volunteers from high schools and civic organizations placed wreaths on each of 9,300 veterans’ graves at the cemetery.

“They all come together and we get it done within about an hour,” Augustine said of the laying of balsam fir tip wreaths, each adorned with a red ribbon.

More than 12,000 veterans and their eligible dependents are interred in the state’s three veterans cemeteries in Darien, Rocky Hill and Middletown.

Members of the Veterans of Vietnam Wars arrived hours before Saturday’s wreath laying to honor their own. “We say a prayer for each one, eight of them, that we lost over the years in our organization,” Augustine said.

U.S. Army veteran Phil Cacciola of Middletown, who was stationed in Germany during the Vietnam era, said “They’re averaging 2.3 burials here in a day — it means roughly 15 in a week.

We’re getting old, infirm and all. Unfortunately, we’re dying at a faster rate,” he said.

“To do the expansion is terrific and it needs to be addressed in terms of some of the stones. You can see there’s been a wetlands problem in some areas where the trees have been hanging over the stones. We’ve got some stones that have turned green,” Cacciola said.

Eisenbach said veterans’ burial rates in Connecticut are on the rise.

“In 2000, there were 14,000 burials statewide,” Eisenbach said. “You bring it forward to 2017 and there’s 38,219 to be exact.”

As part of the renovations, thousands of grave markers will be realigned, he said, pointing to the stones in the distance, whose lines slightly weave in and out.

As the earth surrounding the gravestones heaves during the cold and becomes soft from the effects of the elements, Eisenbach said, the white markers have “a broken-tooth effect.

“They’ll be cleaned and you’ll get that nice, clean …” Eisenbach started to say.

“The Arlington look,” Cacciola said, as they both laughed.

Eisenbach came to Middletown from Agawam, Massachusetts, Tuesday, where he spent the morning reviewing a similar project.

His department has 105 projects on a priority list right now valued at $293 million. “At any one given time, there could be maybe 49 that are fully actionable (ready to go),” Eisenbach said. “That’s because you have to have legislation to move forward and 10-percent state matching funds.

“The beauty of this program is that it is 100 percent reimbursable,” by the federal government, he said.

Managing Editor Cassandra Day can be reached at cassandra.day@hearstmediact.com.