In July 2005, the infantry unit of specialist Christopher Velez’s army received an urgent call for reinforcement 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 get him,” 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 reach the captive soldier, who was a friend of his. Later, Mr. Velez found out that his friend had been killed. Mr. Velez got a Purple Heart.
After Mr. Velez’s release in 2006, he returned home to New York. He was missed by the military community and a life of service, and wore a steel bracelet commemorating 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 forcing 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: 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 calling.
“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 administration of the national cemetery have military experience. They participate in the operation of 155 national cemeteries, including that of Calverton, the largest. In total, Calverton holds the remains of 280,000 people; the national burial system buried more than four million.
Veterans have long viewed burial as both a sacred right and a final act of brotherhood. Some volunteer to attend the funerals of complete strangers, including homeless veterans or relatives.
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 journey back from service. Many suffer from serious illnesses, 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 Gettysburg speechAbraham Lincoln presented a vision to honor the country’s war dead: “The world will not notice, 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 fell.
In 1867, Congress passed the National Cemetery Act, which allocated $ 750,000 to purchase land, marble headstones and pavilions for gardeners, mostly 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 performed by 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-day weeks, with shifts often ranging from sunrise to sunset. sunset.
On Memorial Day 2020, the normally bustling grounds of Calverton only hosted a small, 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 that day. “We die the first time the breath leaves us. But we only really die in the future when no one speaks our name or tells our story. “
Outside of some communities, holidays 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, 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 US civil-military divide widens, many have lost a tangible connection to the conflict, including a basic understanding of its victims. War and its costs seem to have become a constant in the depths 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 in for what they hoped would be a more normal Memorial Day.
One of them was Lawrence Hawkins, a Marine Corps veteran who has been in charge of the field for 16 years. He and his team imbue the cemetery with a feeling of warmth 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 up the browning grass and rotten clumps, allowing visitors to focus on the graves.
Complementing 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 view their military service with pride, although many understand the messy legacy of war. They testify to its complexity in their work in the cemetery, but also through discreet signs of camaraderie.
“Everyone here is made from the same fabric,” Mr. Velez explained. “We’ll catch ourselves drifting, having that thousand-yard gaze or whatever you want to call it.” We can usually break away from a silly joke or come back to reality. “
But not always. This year, a former Army Ranger and Calverton employee committed suicide. Many employees attended the funeral and buried him at the eastern 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. “Nobody’s going to leave him behind, you know. Not like some of those old private cemeteries, where rocks 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 terrains from afar as static and frozen in the past. In truth, these are dynamic and didactic spaces that count gracefully with war. As Mr. Hawkins said, “You build down instead of building. “