In July 2005, the infantry unit of specialist Christopher Velez’s army received an urgent call for reinforcements from a village in Uruzgan province in Afghanistan: a group of American soldiers had engaged in a shootout. with Taliban fighters.
“One of our guys who was injured, he didn’t come back from this village, and someone had to go pick him up,” Mr. Velez told me on a recent hot morning. “We didn’t know if he was alive, so I put my hand up.
During the rescue attempt, a grenade exploded a few meters from Mr. Velez, seriously injuring him. While he managed to shoot down the enemy fighter who threw the explosive, he was unable to get to the captive soldier, who was a friend of his. Later, Mr. Velez found out that his friend had been killed. Mr. Velez won a Purple Heart.
After Mr. Velez was released in 2006, he returned home to New York. He lacked the military community and a life of service, and wore a steel bracelet in memory of 12 fellow soldiers who died overseas, including the man he sought to save.
About seven years ago, Mr. Velez landed a mundane but well-paying white-collar job. During the Covid-19 pandemic, he became disillusioned with his bosses, which allowed some employees to work from the security of their homes while requiring others – including him – to come to the office. While Mr Velez said he did not feel in danger, he recalled that military superiors “would never send you to do something that they would not do”.
At the end of January, Mr Velez, now 36, quit his job and turned to a new profession: the gardener at Calverton National Cemetery. Founded in 1978, it spans over 1,000 bucolic acres in eastern Long Island, offering the last federal benefit available to veterans: burial.
Salary at Calverton varies based on experience and specialist expertise. But the starting salary is around $ 23 an hour, with all the standard benefits of working in the public sector, including health insurance and a pension plan. A boy from the town of Midwood in Brooklyn, Mr. Velez had no experience mowing lawns, laying sod, or operating heavy machinery. But he felt a call.
“I wanted to come back to the veterans community because I know these guys,” he said. “They are leading forward.”
Today, 75 percent of the workers in the National Cemetery Administration have military experience. They help run 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 burial as a sacred right and a final act of fellowship. Some volunteered to attend the funerals of complete strangers, including veterans who were homeless or who had no next of kin.
While the sea of headstones from a national cemetery provides a silent toll, the veterans caring for them serve as living monuments to the long road back from service. Many are struggling with serious ailments, including war trauma. While some may have had doubts about their military orders, many welcome the cemetery’s holistic mission: to ensure peace for the families of the deceased.
In the address of GettysburgAbraham Lincoln presented a vision to honor the country’s war dead: “The world will not notice much, nor will it long remember what we say here,” he said. “But he can never forget what they did here.” Again this vision was seldom realized.
During the Civil War, the Army Quartermaster’s Department 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 had fallen.
In 1867, Congress passed the National Cemetery Act, which allocated $ 750,000 to purchase land, marble headstones and lodges for field wardens, most of them disabled veterans. Armed only with coarse tools, they laid tombstones, buried the dead, and erected monuments to unknown soldiers.
The government has also sought to recover the remains of more than 300,000 soldiers. Typically, the gruesome exhumation work was left to former slaves, Confederate veterans, and Black Union soldiers.
More than 150 years later, employees of the National Cemetery Administration continue the simple but arduous work of putting veterans to rest.
For several months during the pandemic, Calverton’s daily burial rate more than doubled, according to a spokesperson. (Calverton also had to suspend the funeral in person, although this gave families the option of arranging services once restrictions were lifted.) Employees worked six days a week, with shifts often from sunrise to sunset. Sun.
On Memorial Day 2020, the normally bustling grounds of Calverton only hosted a small and simple ceremony. “They say we will die two dead,” said Randy Reeves, a veteran who was then Deputy Secretary for Commemorative Affairs at the Department of Veterans Affairs, in an address that day. “We die the first time the breath leaves us. But we’re only really going to die in the future when no one says our name or tells our story.
Outside of some communities, festivals like Memorial Day have lost their symbolic power. A 2019 poll found that only 55% of Americans could correctly describe the meaning of Memorial Day. Now it is marked by empty thanks, buying sales, even militarism. Calverton, 70 miles east of New York City, is largely hidden from public view, hidden from the road by rows of trees.
As the civil-military divide widens in America, many have lost a tangible connection to the conflict, including a basic understanding of its losses. War and its costs seem to have become a constant in the context of the nation’s history. Therefore, in 2010, the cemetery administration completed its largest area expansion since the Civil War.
A sunny day This month, staff at Calverton prepared to welcome families back for what they hoped would be a more normal Memorial Day.
One of them was Lawrence Hawkins, a Marine Corps veteran who has looked after the grounds for 16 years. He and his crew imbue the cemetery with a feeling of both heat and cold. While death hides beneath the surface, the land and those who maintain it are teeming with life.
Crew members strike this delicate balance by following a set of procedures that dictate everything from the space between headstones to the procedure for felling a tree. Workers plant special mixtures of herbs to ensure color and smoothness; marble tombstones are rubbed to achieve their brightest white. They also regularly clean the burnt grass and decaying clumps, allowing visitors to focus on the graves.
Calverton’s austere discipline is what Matthew Fitzpatrick, a 76-year-old army veteran and longtime field guard, described as “a personal touch” – things like working late and resetting headstones.
Calverton employees take pride in their military service, although many understand the messy legacy of the war. They testify to its complexity in their cemetery work, but also through discreet signs of camaraderie.
“Everyone here is cut from the same fabric,” Mr. Velez explained. “We’ll catch ourselves drifting, with that thousand-meter gaze or whatever you want to call it. We can usually break up with a silly joke or come back to reality. “
But not always. This year, a former Ranger and Calverton employee committed suicide. Many employees attended the funeral and buried him at the east end of the cemetery.
“This gravestone will always be cared for by a veteran, or someone,” said Nicholas Clark, a Marine Corps combat veteran who works in the Calverton gravestone department. “No one will leave it behind, you know. Not like some of those old private cemeteries, where stones fall or crack.
This funeral system for veterans serves as a vital infrastructure: to keep the past alive, to support the community and for mourning. Civilians may view these patterns from afar as static and stuck in the past. In truth, they are dynamic didactic spaces that gracefully hold the war. As Mr. Hawkins said, “you are building down instead of building”.