This story appeared on Memorial Day 2022.
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,” the program specialist, training and safety officer at Calverton National Cemetery said. “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, as he made his rounds of the Cemetery last week on a day of pouring rain.
That commitment was a 10-year army career with three tours of duty in Iraq. Hilts, 38, lives in Rocky Point with his wife Kathleen, where they’re raising three sons, and is one of 96 Cemetery employees in Calverton.
He has two comrades-in-arms who were killed in action and buried in Arlington National Cemetery. There are 137 National Cemeteries in the country, 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 on active duty or during training, or any honorably discharged veteran, is entitled to be buried in a National Cemetery, as well as their spouses and dependent children.
Hilts drove his work pickup slowly out of a winding roadway under the trees to open green fields and whiter-than-white marble headstones gleaming 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 seen in these fields of polished stone. “Every grave is the same,” Hilts said. “There are four-star generals buried next to privates.”
The headstones are as trim and straight as a military formation. The sight hushes conversation; the beauty, silence and solemnity are moving reminders of sacrifices made. That feeling, Hilts said, “doesn’t ever stop. Not even after seven years,” noting that he celebrated his anniversary here this month.
Calverton’s 1,045 acres holds the graves of more than 287,000 veterans and eligible family members, according to Executive Cemetery Director Anne Ellis, with an average of 5,400 burials a year. 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, Hilts went to St. John’s University and graduated with a degree in Homeland Security, the first university, he said, that granted that degree. When he heard of openings at Calverton, “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 Corp vet, and William Pearsall, an Army vet, are now working at the Cemetery. Yanetta is a vehicle operator and grave digger and Pearsall sets headstones.
Pearsall said that after being discharged from the Army, he wanted to continue serving his country, and the Cemetery was a perfect fit.
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 he makes his rounds, Hilts looks at the headstones, which note dates of births, deaths and military service. “I find stories in them,” he said, remembering seeing 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, 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 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 Colonel Francis Gabreski, who gave his name to the base. And Hilts points out, again, that rank, or type of service, is equal here, where the famous aviator and officer is buried next to Private George T. Becker.
Many of the flags lining the main roadway have been donated by veterans’ families. These flags covered their loved one’s caskets, 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 in 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,” 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.”