Veterans Day, A Gathering Of Leaves
My wife, Mary and I decided to travel to Blackwater Falls to see the seasonal change of colors. Route 50 east is a nice drive at this time of year. An early frost had touched the trees brushing their leaves with shades of red and yellow. As we neared Grafton, rain began to fall from gray skies overhead. It was the type of rain if you turn your wipers to continuous it is too much. If you turn them to intermittent, they are too slow. It was just one of those slow drizzling fall rains.
As we traveled along, leaves gathered by the wind swirled into a covering of color on the wet road. I slowed my speed not wanting to slip on them. It was at one of these times I looked away from the swirling leaves that I saw a sign ahead. We passed before I could slow on the wet road safely. A short ways ahead I found a place to turn and head back. Mary asked, “Where are we going?” I told her, “A place where veterans are laid to rest, West Virginia’s National Cemetery.” She said, “I’d like that.”
The West Virginia National Cemetery is a few miles west of Grafton. The cemetery was dedicated on Sept. 27, 1987 on land that was owned by the West Virginia Industrial School for Boys. The land was transferred to the Department of Veterans Affairs with the intent to create a new cemetery that would be managed by the National Cemetery Administration. It had been determined that a new site was needed when it was realized the Grafton National Cemetery would soon reach capacity.
Grafton National Cemetery was opened in 1867. The cemetery is terraced to have burial sights on three levels. A total of 2161 people have been laid to rest within the 3.2 acres. It was built with the intentions of being a place where soldiers from the Civil War could be buried with honor. Even two years after the war, soldiers were dying from battle field injuries. With the completion of the cemetery, soldiers buried in other places were moved to the place that honored their sacrifices. The identity of 613 soldiers are still unknown.
The newer West Virginia National Cemetery is located on an 89 acre tract of land. At the present time, 50 acres have been developed for interment of veterans and their spouses. Veterans can arrange to have their spouses laid to rest with them. This can be done in a single site that contains two graves. If both are veterans they may be buried in two different graves.
Brian Barnes is the director of the facility and has a staff of nine employees who work for the National Cemetery Administration. The Grafton Cemetery is but one of several maintained by the administration. There are a total of 135 National Cemeteries in 40 states and Puerto Rico. These cemeteries are the resting places for 3.4 million graves. In fiscal year 2014; 125,185 interments took place. It is estimated 19% of veterans are buried in National Cemeteries.
In the fiscal year which ended the last of September, 316 burials took place at the West Virginia National Cemetery. The majority of those interred during that time are veterans from the Vietnam War era. I wondered if we have reached a point where there are so few veterans from World War II and Korea the numbers have begun to change. We will only know with the passage of time.
As we drove along the well-kept roadway we could see rows of white markers. Each perfectly aligned with the one that stood beside it. Along the green hillsides head stones inscribed with names told of men and women who served our country. Names that said nothing as we looked upon the stones wet with rain. But, yet they said to those who wish to listen, “We are proud Americans who served our country in war and time of peace. We honored our country, sometimes with our lives. Now, we lay together in this place of honor. All we ask, forget not the price of freedom and the sacrifice of those who rest in this place. Honor our service, honor America.”
As we topped the hill I stopped the car and we sat looking through the rain streaked windows at the rows of markers. Mary said quietly, “There are so many.” She was right. The stones stretched around the hillsides and it was impossible to see them all from any single place.
After a few moments the rain slowed and I stepped out of the car to get a picture. As I walked to the edge of the road I felt a mist of rain on my face. Looking just below in another section of the grounds, I could see a black hearse. Alongside were a dozen honor guards standing at attention in the light rain. Two men in Navy uniforms were among those standing in honor. I realized the person being laid to rest was most likely a Navy Veteran. I wondered, were they a veteran of the Vietnam War or maybe World War II? Perhaps they served during the Korean War or during a time of peace. They may have served in the long wars in the middle-east. I knew not of what war or time of peace the person had served, but I knew they were an American Veteran.
As I stood there a sudden gust of wind blew a gathering of leaves pass me and through the rows of white markers. Their passing made not a sound as they moved along the ground. I gave their passing little thought until later that evening, I wondered, did those blowing leaves make not a sound because they were wet with rain? Or perhaps they were silent in their passing to honor the person being laid to rest. Mary said it best, “There are so many.”
I remembered the words of a man who honored fallen veterans long ago. They are as important today as when they were first said, 152 years ago. ?It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863.
On this Veterans Day and every day remember with pride all American Veterans. For the day will come when they all shall swirl before the wind as gathering of leaves as we look Through the Lens.