In military cemeteries, the work serves to honor fallen comrades

Employees of the National Cemetery Administration care for the graves of millions of veterans, fallen troops and their families. The Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis is one of NCA's busiest. Ed O'Keefe reports.
By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 10, 2010; 11:34 PM

IN ST. LOUIS -- Marine Lance Cpl. Phillip D. Vinnedge is buried on bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, alongside veterans dating to the Civil War.

A roadside bomb killed him last month, 16 days after he arrived in Afghanistan. He was 19.

Days later, hundreds gathered for his burial at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, one of the country's most active military burial sites.

Vinnedge was just one of 18 people buried that day at the cemetery and one of more than 330 souls laid to rest at 131 national cemeteries across the country. Each of the burials must be treated with the same dignity and respect.

Those are the strict orders of the National Cemetery Administration, a part of the Department of Veterans Affairs whose 1,700 workers are mostly military veterans. Landscapers, grave diggers, family representatives and cemetery directors must attend training courses in St. Louis that, depending on the job, last from four days to a year.

The Defense Department last month asked NCA to retrain workers from the scandal-plagued Arlington National Cemetery, hoping the tiny agency's deep devotion to perfection will rub off and keep lawmakers from transferring the nation's most famous military cemetery out of the Army's hands.

"There's no university that teaches setting headstones or turf maintenance like we do," said NCA Acting Undersecretary Steve Muro. "It's different than landscaping a golf course or residential areas. We wanted to make sure that veterans were taken care of with the dignity that they earned."

"I ask workers to treat each service as if it was their mom, or dad, or young children," Muro said. "How would you want to be treated? How would you want to be escorted to your grave that day? We've got to give every person the same attention. We've got to give every family the same attention. We only get one chance to get this right."

Vinnedge's family and friends gathered at a shelter near his grave. Marines fired the traditional 21-gun salute, taps played, then family members followed the coffin to the grave.

"I could not have asked for people to be more respectful and more willing to do what we wanted, what we experienced," said Phillip's mother, Julie Vinnedge. She was especially touched by 16 Marines who stood over her son's grave in silence after his burial.

As those Marines stood guard, rifles crackled in the distance as another burial ended. Backhoes and dump trucks beeped and rumbled nearby as workers dug graves.

Jefferson Barracks averages 18 burials a day, five days a week, making it the fifth-most active cemetery in the NCA system. The agency is responsible for 3.1 million grave sites in 39 states and Puerto Rico. The Army owns and operates Arlington National Cemetery and the Soldier's Home Cemetery in Washington, the Interior Department maintains 14 burial sites, but NCA conducted more than 111,800 burials last year, the most of any agency.

Burial at a VA national cemetery is open to all active duty and veteran members of the military who meet minimum service requirements and are discharged honorably. Spouses, minor children and the parents of unmarried active duty troops killed in action are also eligible for burial. The NCA provides a grave site, headstone or marker and flag at no cost to a veteran's family. Coffin burials costs taxpayers about $951; burying cremated remains costs $672, NCA said. Headstones are also provided at no charge to veterans and active duty troops buried at private cemeteries.

Many burials are attended by just one or two people. Craig Lachance, 44, participated in more than 1,300 burials at Jefferson Barracks as a member of the military honor guard.

"At the end of the day I'd usually have a lot of makeup and a lot of mascara on my dress blues, because at the smaller ones, you're the only one that came," he said.

After working for the Veterans Benefits Administration, Lachance enrolled in the NCA's year-long management intern program held near the cemetery. This year, nine recruits are learning basic management skills and more specialized tasks such as how to mow cemetery grass, properly lay headstones, and deal with the emotional stress of daily burials. By July they'll be ready to serve as cemetery directors at any NCA site.

Lachance joined the program after attending his father's military burial at a nearby private cemetery.

"It was a poorly folded flag and a poorly done service," Lachance said. "I don't want a family member coming away from my services the way I came away from my father's service."

The trainees seem singularly focused on ensuring perfect burials. Instructors often remind them of NCA's 95 percent satisfaction rating from the American Customer Satisfaction Index. Dissatisfaction stems from families that may have wanted a military honor guard or chaplain when none is available. Or maybe they noticed cracks in a nearby headstone.

"Until we get to 100 percent, we haven't done enough," said Donnie Sisk, 43, a management intern in the Army Reserves.

"There's a tendency for it to be somewhat of a mechanical process," he said of the burial process. "The fear is that I would ever lose sight of that emotion and that I would not be able to convey that to my employees."

"These people come in with a passion for the mission, they feel like they're helping their comrades," said Patrick K. Hallinan, a 30-year NCA veteran who developed the St. Louis training program and now serves as superintendent at Arlington National Cemetery. He expects Arlington's operations to improve in the next three years.

Upstairs from the St. Louis training center, 39 telephone operators answer calls from funeral directors hoping to schedule a burial. Five cemeteries are under construction as part of a goal to ensure that 90 percent of veterans live no more than 75 miles from a burial site. The VA expects burials will increase annually until 2013 and then start declining as fewer veterans die each year.

In the meantime the operators answer calls 362 days a year for 11 1/2 hours a day. The phones never stop ringing.

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