Richard Hilts was a specialist in the Army ten years ago when his wife's grandfather, a World War II man, was laid to rest in Calverton National Cemetery.
To make the funeral, Hilts volunteered to work as a member of the color guard. In his neatly pressed uniform, moving with ceremonial consent, the soldier helped to fold the burial flag into a tight handkerchief, and then gave the widow the colors.
Today, Hilts is one of almost 100 employees in the cemetery – 62 are former members of the service – who prepare the final resting places for thousands of soldiers every year.
“This tells us the story of our mission here – never to forget a veteran,” said Hilts, 35, of Coram, who studied the GI Bill at St John's University, then working on the graveside in the graveyard the following day. graduated in 2015.
“Yes, we lost some people when I was over there,” Hilts said about his three combat tours in Iraq. “So I say it's very personal to me.”
He is also personal to Douglas Chong, 41, a former Army tank mechanic who is now the landscape of Calverton.
Chong drove delivery trucks for living after discharge in 2003. When he lost that job four years later, he saw an opening at the cemetery.
"I applied," he said, "and six months later, the rest was in his history."
Not long after Chong started at Calverton, he saw a young soldier buried with him still.
The man's wife could not be much older than 19 years of age. She spent the couple's new baby, watching her husband lowering into the ground. She was not able to control tears.
Her regret overwhelmed Chong. He asked him if he had been cut off for the job.
"I can still face his picture, and I know the child never grew with his father," Chong said, who has four children. “And then I thought I don't know if I can do one of these.”
Chong spent his first two years at the cemetery digging graves. Teams use a backhand to dig a 7ft deep hole and just over 7 feet. Yes, the workers pull down into the clay dome to gently turn off the sides. After lowering the chest into the ground, they cover the dome with dirt shovels.
They do it through winter days with frost, and showers in April that leave the soil saturated and heavy, and occasional summer evenings cut short by thunder coming from the west.
“These two years were serious, but it was a great honor,” said Chong, from Shirley. “You are the last person to see that veteran in the ground. There is a link. ”
The first of 272,500 calverton burials occurred on September 11, 1978. Army Pvt. Alexander Scagnelli, a young man who was 71 years of age from Bridgeport, Connecticut, had no family to see him at a break, records cemetery records.
Almost every old soldier who has not dishonestly discharged can be chosen to be buried at Calverton as well as their spouses and dependents. The burial benefits provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs include the grave site, the opening and closing of the graves, the headstone, the burial flag, a presidential memorial certificate and perpetual care of space.
Hilts worked in the “marking section” of Calverton, which lays down layers of white slabs.
The 230-pound – 42 inch high slabs, 13 inches wide, 4 inches thick – are heated from a granite quarry in Vermont. The inscriptions include the highest military rank of the deceased, the service branch and the service of the war. A family can also ask for a short religious symbol or personal message.
The teams set 30 headstones at a time, using guide ropes and carpentry levels to maintain the balanced crop of markers aligned across the cemetery to 1,045 acres.
In February, Hilts moved to an administrative post which asks him to link information about the deceased to when, where and how the burial.
Now, going to an office inside Calverton's well-deserved center, Hilts has another view of the importance of burials.
It's not too long ago, when he was preparing for a veteran burial of World War II. Hilts noted that he and the veteran had attended the 325th Infantry Regiment. It is noted that on the second day of the D-Day invasion of the Normandy coast, infantry soldiers are sending wireless infantry soldiers to locations behind enemy lines.
“When I told the family that I was a unit, they were floated,” said Hilts, a “Airborne” lapel pin who nominates his service as a counter. “They were all smile.”
The exchange showed that his work affects Hilts.
““ I left and felt, but …… ”he said. "I felt good that I might feel that family was a bit better than they were when they came here."