Arlington National Cemetery is the place where a service member's most solemn rite of passage begins. Picture-perfect, the nation's burial ground always seems dressed for company. Grounds are groomed, neat and trim, and headstones stand muster in formal symmetry. Words like “serious,” “somber” and “discipline” come to mind.
“Arlington is a symbolic place where the spirit of patriotism lives,” said Tom Sherlock, the cemetery's historian. “It is a solemn, ceremonial, beautiful place, but this beauty doesn't just happen. The way it gets this way is a story few know about.”
Plenty of labor and a lot of love go into keeping the cemetery picture-perfect, Sherlock said.
“What really makes Arlington happen 365 days a year,” Sherlock said, “are the people behind the scenes who work here day in and day out.”
Arlington National Cemetery, which sits on 612 acres, hosts nearly five million visitors a year. An average of 23 funerals a day occur Monday through Friday, regardless of the weather. During Hurricane Floyd, Sherlock said, when “rain was blowing sideways,” there were 24 funerals in one day. All cemetery employees showed up for work.
“Funerals happen no matter what,” Sherlock said. “These folks have the attitude that each funeral has got to be the best one, no mistakes.”
There are three divisions of folks working at ANC: facilities engineers, field operations and administrative services employees combine efforts to operate the cemetery year round.
They do, variously, everything from grave digging to counseling grieving family members. Others do carpentry, weld gates, plan funerals and tend the “living monuments,” as tree maintenance worker Russell Fisher refers to the cemetery's trees. There are also mechanics, budget folks, payroll clerks, plumbers and draftsmen.
On a typical day, ANC is just like any small enterprise where it's business as usual.
Tree maintenance worker and leader Fisher and Lenwood Underhill, tractor operator, tend to a diseased sycamore tree threatening to fall on gravestones.
“When in history will this ever happen again, where we can take care of 200-year-old living monuments?” Fisher asked. “I do what I do because I love trees, and I want to beautify Arlington.”
Tony McGill, a mechanic, works on one of Arlington's six backhoes.
“Without these machines, we'd have to pack it up and go home,” he said. Backhoes are the primary grave-digging tool at Arlington.
McGill said he is one of a large team of employees who make up Arlington National Cemetery. “We are just like a chain,” he said.
Ed Chavez, welder, puts the finishing touches on a stand for Robert F. Kennedy's gravesite. Cemetery personnel hope the signage will discourage visitors from throwing coins into the reflecting pool. Chavez plans, designs and creates ramps, barricades and gates for the cemetery. “I'm proud that Iím here to serve,” he said.
George F. Jones and Donald A. Carter, cemetery caretakers, prepare a grave for burial.
“You want to put effort into this,” Carter said, “to make it presentable to the family.”
“I want the family to feel comfortable,” Jones said, “so they know their loved ones are buried properly.”
Edward Jones, Columbarium worker, replaces temporary markers with permanent ones.
“You get to know people,” he said. “I'm never alone out here. Some folks come every day, and I get to know them. Some are grieving real hard, and we talk. They're lonesome.”
Ronny Smith, cemetery caretaker, assists Jones. “There's never a dull moment here,” he said. “We are caring for the dead, and foreigners who come here especially respect that very much. They comment most on the time and love we spend on caring for the dead.”
According to Sherlock, the community of 102 workers at the cemetery is like the technical crew of a Broadway play. Without them, the show would not go on.
“The pride they take in their work is a way to pay their respects to the heroes buried here, and it's a way to give their hearts to the families,” Sherlock said. “How do you value that?”
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Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard