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In July 2005, the infantry unit of the army received an urgent cry for help from specialist Christopher Velez from a village in the Uruzgan province in Afghanistan: A group of American soldiers had got into a gun battle with Taliban fighters.
“One of our wounded did not come back from the village and someone had to pick him up,” Mr Velez told me on a warm morning. “We weren’t sure he was alive, so I raised my hand.”
During the rescue attempt, a grenade exploded a few meters from Mr. Velez, seriously wounding him. While he managed to defeat the enemy fighter who threw the explosives, he couldn’t make it to the captured soldier who was a friend of his. Later, Mr. Velez discovered that his friend had been killed. Mr. Velez has earned a purple heart.
After Mr. Velez was released in 2006, he returned to New York. Missing the military community and a life of service, he wore a steel bracelet commemorating 12 fellow soldiers who died abroad, including the man he wanted to save.
About seven years ago, Mr. Velez got a secular but well-paid clerk job. During the Covid-19 pandemic, he became disillusioned with his bosses. allowing some employees to work from home while others – including him – were encouraged to go to the office. While saying he did not feel in danger, Mr Velez recalled how military superiors “would never send you to do something you would not do”.
At the end of January, 36-year-old Velez quit his job and turned to a new industry: the groundskeeper at Calverton National Cemetery. Founded in 1978, spanning over 1,000 acres in east Long Island, the company provides the ultimate federal benefit to veterans: burial.
Payment at Calverton is based on experience and expertise. However, the starting salary is $ 23 an hour, with all the standard public sector benefits including health insurance and retirement benefits. Mr. Velez, a Midwood, Brooklyn town boy, had no experience mowing lawns, laying grass, or operating heavy machinery. But he felt a calling.
“I wanted to get back into the veteran community because I know these guys,” he said. “You lead from the front.”
Today, 75 percent of the workers in the National Cemetery Administration have military experience. They help operate 155 national cemeteries, including Calverton, the largest. In total, Calverton holds the remains of 280,000 people; The national funeral system has buried more than four million.
Veterans have long viewed the funeral as both a sacred right and a final act of community. Some volunteer at the funerals of complete strangers, including veterans who have been homeless or who have no immediate relatives.
While the sea of tombstones of a national cemetery takes a silent toll, the veterans who care for them serve as living memorials for the long commute back from duty. Many struggle with serious ailments, including war trauma. While some have had concerns about their military orders, many applaud the holistic mission of the cemetery: to keep the families of the deceased at peace.
At the Gettysburg addressAbraham Lincoln presented a vision to honor the country’s war dead: “The world will notice little and will not long remember what we say here,” he said. “But it can never forget what you did here.” Still This vision has seldom been realized.
During the Civil War, the Army’s Quartermaster Division oversaw military burials, which were often makeshift. Some soldiers were given wooden headboards and shallow graves near war hospitals, while others were left on the battlefields where they fell.
In 1867, Congress passed the National Cemetery Act, which allocated $ 750,000 to purchase land, marble headings, and lodges for groundskeepers, mostly disabled veterans. Armed only with crude tools, they set gravestones, buried the dead and erected monuments for unknown soldiers.
The government also tried to salvage the remains of more than 300,000 soldiers. Typically, the gruesome exhumation work was entrusted to former slaves, Confederate veterans, and Black Union soldiers.
More than 150 years later, the National Cemetery Administration staff continues the simple but arduous job of putting veterans to rest.
Calverton’s daily burial rate more than doubled for several months during the pandemic, according to a spokeswoman. (Calverton also had to suspend personal funerals, although it allowed families to hold services once restrictions were lifted.) Staff worked six days a week, with shifts often running from sunrise to sunset.
Only a small, simple ceremony took place on Memorial Day 2020 in the normally busy Calverton grounds. “It is said that we die two deaths,” said Randy Reeves, a veteran who was then undersecretary for memorial affairs in the Department of Veterans Affairs, in a comment that day. “We die the first time the breath leaves us. But we really only die sometime in the future if no one speaks our name or tells our story. “
Outside of certain communities, holidays such as Memorial Day have lost their symbolic power. A 2019 poll found that only 55 percent of Americans could correctly describe the importance of Memorial Day. Now it is marked by hollow thanks, shopping sales and even militarism. Calverton, 70 miles east of New York City, is largely hidden from the public and hidden from the street by rows of trees.
As the civil-military divide in America widened, many lost a concrete connection to conflict, including a basic understanding of its victims. War and its cost seem to have become a constant in the background of the nation’s history. As a result, in 2010 the cemetery administration completed its largest area expansion since the civil war.
On a sunny day That month, Calverton staff prepared to welcome the families back into what they had hoped for a more normal Memorial Day.
One of them was Lawrence Hawkins, a Marine Corps veteran who has tended the site for 16 years. He and his crew fill the cemetery with a feeling of warmth and cold. While death lurks beneath the surface, the reasons and those who nurture them are full of life.
Crew members achieve this delicate balance by following a series of procedures that dictate everything from the distance between tombstones to the procedure for cutting a tree. The workers plant special mixtures of grass to ensure color and softness. Marble headstones are scrubbed to achieve their brightest whiteness. They also regularly remove tanning grass and rotting bouquets of flowers so that visitors can pay their undivided attention to the graves.
Calverton’s rigorous discipline is complemented by Matthew Fitzpatrick, a 76-year-old Army veteran and longtime groundskeeper who is referred to as “personal touches” – things like working late and resetting headstones.
Calverton employees consider their military service proud, though many understand the messy legacy of war. They testify to the complexity of their cemetery work, but also to quiet signs of camaraderie.
“Everyone here is cut from the same fabric,” explained Velez. “We’ll catch ourselves drifting and have that thousand-meter-long view, or whatever you want to call it. We can usually break it off with a goofy joke or bring each other back to reality. “
But not always. That year a former Army Ranger and Calverton employee committed suicide. Many employees attended the funeral and buried him at the eastern tip of the cemetery.
“This headstone is always tended by a veteran or someone,” said Nicholas Clark, a Marine Corps veteran who works in the Calverton Tombstone Division. “Nobody’s going to leave it behind, you know? Not like some of those old private cemeteries where the stones fall over or crack. “
This veteran funeral network serves as an essential infrastructure: to keep the past alive, to support the community, and to grieve. From afar, civilians can view these reasons as static and get stuck in the past. In truth, they are dynamic, didactic spaces that gracefully anticipate war. As Mr. Hawkins put it, “You are mining instead of building.”