Veterans' Burials Nonstop at National Cemeteries
RITTMAN, Ohio – The cracking of rifle fire silenced the twittering blue jays, blackbirds and killdeer.
As members of the color guard lowered their rifles, the smell of bitter smoke drifted over the family and friends of former Army Sgt. Ellis Hale, a Vietnam War veteran who died of prostate cancer at age 59. Sniffles and gentle sobs accompanied a recording of taps.
Moments after the final note, Sherry Hale walked down a curved brick walkway past the saluting line of representatives of the country's past wars. Head bowed, she clutched 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. Military veterans are being buried at such a rapid rate that national cemeteries use heavy equipment to make room.
"We're still in growth mode right now," said Bill Tuerk, under secretary for memorial affairs at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. "We're in a very high demand time period and we're trying to respond to it."
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. And more national cemeteries are being built.
The peak year for veterans' deaths will be either 2007 or 2008, Tuerk said. 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.
Ohio Western Reserve, a 273-acre expanse south of Cleveland, opened in 2000 and has about 11,000 veterans and dependents buried there. It has enough land to keep it open 92 more years and accommodate a total of 106,000 burials.
Thirty-four veterans groups volunteer for services. Every seventh Thursday members of American Legion Post 548 from Louisville, Ohio, dressed in black coats, ties and pants with white belts, gloves and shoulder cords, come to pay tribute to fellow veterans.
One crisp spring morning, dozens of mourners for Hale more than filled the benches inside a stone open-air shelter tucked into a wooded corner.
Several jumped as the seven members of Post 548 fire the first of three volleys. The shell casings faintly ping and clatter as they landed 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.
Ohio Western Reserve averages 7 1/2 burials a day. The busiest national cemetery is Riverside National Cemetery, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles. It averages about 30 burials, 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, said Michael Picerno, director of Calverton National Cemetery in New York.
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.
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 flag was presented to Hale's wife of 36 years. She was seated on a bench in the front row.
"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," she said. "I feel proud."
A cemetery employee politely asked the mourners to leave the shelter so the next service could begin.
Men and women in dark suits and dresses, some holding hands or with arms around one another for comfort, climbed into their Fords and Buicks and slowly drove away.