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Column: Dignity, respect on hallowed ground at Calverton National Cemetery

Rich Hilts enlisted in the U.S. Army right after graduating from high school in upstate Rome. His first day of basic training was Sept. 11, 2001. “We didn’t believe it,” said Mr. Hilts, who is program specialist, training and safety officer at Calverton National Cemetery. “We thought it was a game being played on every recruit.” 

When the reality of the terrorist attacks became clear, it “reinforced my commitment,” he said last week as he made his rounds of the cemetery on a day of pouring rain.

That commitment was a 10-year Army career that included three tours in Iraq. Mr. Hilts, 38, now lives with his wife, Kathleen, and their three sons in Rocky Point, and is one of 96 cemetery employees in Calverton. He has two comrades-in-arms who were killed in action and buried at Arlington National Cemetery. There are 137 national cemeteries in the country, including two on Long Island — Calverton and Long Island National in Farmingdale. All are maintained by the Veterans Administration and most of the personnel are veterans. Anyone killed while on active duty or during training, or any honorably discharged veteran, is entitled to be buried in a National Cemetery, as are their spouses and dependent children.

Mr. Hilts drove his work pickup slowly out of a winding roadway under the trees to open green fields, where whiter-than-white marble headstones gleamed under a sky the color of ashes. The thousands upon thousands of headstones are exactly the same height, 28 inches from the grass once the stone is placed. You see no monuments, obelisks or elaborate mausoleums. Death is the one irrefutable equalizer for everyone, but it’s a physical fact in these fields of polished stone. “Every grave is the same,” Mr. Hilts said. “There are four-star generals buried next to privates.” 

The headstones are as trim and straight as a military formation. Keeping them clean and “plumb” from every angle takes constant maintenance, so that not even a hint of shoddiness is allowed to break the sense of order, completeness and pride. The sight hushes conversation; the beauty, silence and solemnity are moving reminders of sacrifices made. That feeling, Mr. Hilts said, “doesn’t ever stop. Not even after seven years,” an anniversary he celebrated there this month. 

Calverton’s 1,045 acres hold the graves of more than 287,000 veterans and eligible family members, according to executive cemetery director Anne Ellis, and an average of 5,400 burials take place there annually. Ms. Ellis noted that the cemetery has the highest “casketed” burial rate of all national cemeteries, meaning others have higher burial rates of cremated remains. 

After his discharge from the Army, Mr. Hilts earned a degree in homeland security from St. John’s University — the first university, he noted, that granted that degree. When he heard of openings at Calverton, he said, “it just made sense to apply here.”

The cemetery is going through big changes, with infrastructure upgrades in the administration buildings and new burial fields being opened to inter more veterans and their loved ones. In a new field, three caretakers were excavating graves in the rain with a backhoe. One smiled and said, “This rain isn’t so bad. Better than dust on a hot day.”

Two men who served in Afghanistan, Steve Yanetta, a Marine Corps vet, and William Pearsall, an Army vet, are now working at the cemetery. Mr. Yanetta is a vehicle operator and grave digger and Mr. Pearsall sets headstones. He said that after being discharged from the Army, he wanted to continue serving his country, and the cemetery was a perfect fit.

Mr. Yanetta added, “I don’t have that gut-wrenching feeling of waking up, thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go to work.’ I’ve found a good place here.”

Ms. Ellis echoed that sentiment, noting that working at Calverton “is a privilege and a steadfast commitment to serve and honor veterans and their families every day. I couldn’t be prouder of the professionalism and skill with which the Calverton team fulfills our commitment to those who have served and sacrificed for our nation.”

Every day as he makes his rounds, Mr. Hilts looks at the headstones, which note dates of birth, death and military service. “I find stories in them,” he said, remembering in particular the grave of a Korean War veteran, a sergeant. “And on the back it said, ‘Holocaust survivor.’ Think about that life. I imagined some Army humor, you know, some guy complaining in Korea, ‘Sarge, this is really cold,’ and the sergeant saying, ‘Cold? You want to hear about cold?’ ”

Stopping at the edge of one field, Mr. Hilts points out the grave of Medal of Honor recipient Michael Murphy from Patchogue, killed in Afghanistan. Nearby is the grave of Tech. Sgt. Dashan Briggs of Port Jefferson Station, who died in a helicopter crash in Iraq. Tech. Sgt. Briggs, a Riverhead native, was a member of the 106th Rescue wing out of Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton Beach. Another stop is at the grave of Col. Francis Gabreski, who gave his name to the base. And again, Mr. Hilts points out that rank, or type of service, is equal here, where the famous aviator and officer is buried next to a private, George T. Becker.

Many of the flags lining the main roadway have been donated by veterans’ families. These are the flags that covered their loved one’s caskets, Mr. Hilts said, and they will be flying this Memorial Day weekend.

He stops by one of the “shelters,” perfectly smooth, concrete-roofed places, open on all four sides to the woods, where families receive the caskets of loved ones who will be buried. They are elegant in their simplicity, set unobtrusively in nature, reached by walkways under the trees. 

“Serene,” Mr. Hilts said quietly. 

As a training officer, he coaches caretakers in dealing with families. “Everyone grieves differently,” he said, some in silence, some more emotionally. “We always remember: Dignity. And respect. And comfort.” 

This Memorial Day, the veteran will be off duty at home. Nothing special is planned, he said. “It’s going to be a day with the family.”

Leaving the cemetery, a slow-moving hearse followed by a long line of private cars was entering, with headlights shining in the gray day.