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thedrifter
05-26-08, 07:33 AM
Burials of vets nonstop at national cemeteries
By Joe Milicia - The Associated Press
Posted : Sunday May 25, 2008 17:08:04 EDT

RITTMAN, Ohio — The cracking of rifle fire silences the twittering blue jays, blackbirds and killdeer.

As members of the color guard lower their rifles, the smell of bitter smoke drifts over the family and friends of former Army Sgt. Ellis Hale, a Vietnam War veteran who died of prostate cancer at age 59.

Another color guard member raises a bugle to his lips, and a recording of taps begins. Sniffles and gentle sobs accompany the somber melody.

A few moments later Sherry Hale walks down a curved brick walkway past the saluting line of representatives of the country’s past wars. Head bowed, she clutches to her chest the American flag that covered her husband’s casket.

The scene at the Ohio Western Reserve National Cemetery is repeated nationwide more than 100 times a day. U.S. military veterans are being buried at such a rapid rate that national cemeteries use heavy equipment to make room.

“We’ll use large equipment front-end loaders, backhoes, dump trucks — it’s essentially an active construction area,” said Michael Picerno, director of Calverton National Cemetery in New York.

An average of 1,800 veterans die each day, and 10 percent of them are buried in the country’s 125 national cemeteries, which are expected to set a record with 107,000 interments, including dependents, this year.

Either 2007 or 2008 will be the peak year for veterans’ deaths, said Bill Tuerk, under secretary for memorial affairs at the Department of Veterans Affairs. An estimated 686,000 veterans died in 2007.

While many World War II veterans are dying, so are an increased number of Korean War and Vietnam veterans.

“We’re still in growth mode right now,” Tuerk said. “We’re in a very high demand time period and we’re trying to respond to it.”
Busy days

The American flag flies at half-staff on a crisp spring morning at Ohio Western Reserve, a 273-acre expanse bordered by a country road to the west and just budding-forest to the east. The flag will remain lowered until 30 minutes after the last of separate services for five veterans.

The cemetery 35 miles south of Cleveland opened in 2000 and has about 11,000 veterans and dependents buried on 65 acres. It has enough land to keep it open 92 more years and accommodate a total of 106,000 burials.

Yellow, pink and purple daisies, white lilies, roses and other fresh and artificial flowers fill stands or lie on the ground in front of headstones, adding splashes of color to the rows of gray markers.

The dozens of mourners for Hale more than fill the benches inside a stone open-air shelter tucked into a wooded corner.

Several jump as the seven members of American Legion Post 548 from Louisville, Ohio, fire the first of three volleys. The shell casings faintly ping and clatter as they land on the brick walkway.

“Every time I fire, I say ‘This is for you,”’ says Navy veteran Dave Scanlon, choking up while referring to his father, “Skip,” a World War II veteran who died in 1999.

Thirty-four veterans groups volunteer for services. Every seventh Thursday members of Post 548, dressed in black coats, ties and pants with white belts, gloves and shoulder cords, line up outside one of the cemetery’s committal shelters to pay tribute to fellow veterans.

“It’s a good feeling,” said Navy World War II veteran Paul Paquelet. “Most of the time the families, especially if she’s a widow, thank us and are real happy that we do that to honor her husband.

“It’s an honor for us and for them.”

Today, Scanlon is “playing” the electronic bugle, instead of firing a rifle.

“You just hit ‘play’ and it takes off,” he said.

Later, the 70-year-old “bugle boy” — as fellow post members call him — forgets to turn on the bugle before hitting the play button. It’s only a momentary delay that goes unnoticed by those attending the service but not his fellow color guard members, who give him a good ribbing afterward.
Maintaining quality, respect

Ohio Western Reserve averages 7 burials a day.

The busiest national cemetery is Riverside National Cemetery, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, which averages about 30 burials a day, followed by Florida National Cemetery, 50 miles north of Tampa.

Third busiest is Calverton National Cemetery, about 50 miles east of Manhattan, although it has handled as many as 55 burials in a day, Picerno said.

To accommodate so many burials, hundreds of crypts are preplaced at Calverton, then covered with dirt and grass. When it comes time for a burial, the sod is cut away, the crypt opened and the casket lowered in.

Six new national cemeteries are under construction under a fiscal year 2008 budget of $167.4 million, triple the previous year. It’s the largest number of cemeteries constructed at one time.

Despite handling burials at an assembly-line pace, the National Cemetery Administration has the highest customer satisfaction score of any federal government agency and any private sector company, according to the University of Michigan’s American Customer Satisfaction Index. It tops companies such as Heinz, Amazon.com, and Hershey’s.

“We are ever-conscious of the fact that with each family we get one chance to get it right,” Tuerk said.

Part of streamlining the process involved holding services at committal shelters — open-air, gazebo-like structures — instead of graveside. Calverton has seven shelters; Western Reserve has two.
Feelings of pride

After taps, two uniformed members of an Army honor guard, wearing white gloves, perform the third and final ritual — the folding of the flag. They make each of the traditional 13 folds with precision as mourners look on in silence. The Army officer presents the flag to Hale’s wife of 36 years, seated on a bench in the front row.

The services are brief — lasting only about 15 minutes — but powerful.

“This is just a wonderful tribute for any soldier,” Sherry Hale said.

“I feel so blessed to be an American and that America has furnished something like this for our soldiers. It gives you such a wonderful feeling. I feel proud,” she said. “There’s no place like America.”

A cemetery employee politely asks mourners to leave the shelter so the next service can begin.

Men and women in dark suits and dresses, some holding hands or with arms around one another for comfort, get in their Fords and Buicks and slowly drive away.

A few minutes later, a hearse leads another group of cars and sport utility vehicles in for the service for former Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Daniel Rayha. A funeral director and cemetery employee wheel his flag-draped casket past the saluting color guard to the shelter.

“I’m very glad that the country does this for these guys,” Daniel Rayha Jr. said. “This is a beautiful thing. It’s tremendous.

“Even if my father wasn’t being buried here. Just being here and seeing what it is is kind of emotional.”

At the front of a field of perfectly aligned headstones stands one for Army Reserve Pfc. Devin James Grella, of Medina, who was killed in Iraq in 2004 when his convoy was struck by a homemade bomb.

Army Spc. Mark Kulcsar, who returned from Iraq last year, took a recent morning to attend a service for a veteran he didn’t know and paused at Grella’s headstone. The inscription reads: “Loves his mom. Loves our God.”

“I just felt like I needed to come, that’s all,” Kulcsar said. “It’s quiet. It’s peaceful — the way it should be.”

Ellie