Hallowed ground: Arlington Cemetery workers pay their respects every day



ARLINGTON, Va. — Nearly 4 million people visit Arlington National Cemetery annually, many of them tourists searching for U.S. history. They watch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns and see more than a dozen other memorials or monuments.

They pay their respects to the 300,000 people who have been buried there in the cemetery’s 143 years, including two presidents, 11 Supreme Court justices and veterans from every major war.

Some come to bury their loved ones at one of 6,400 funerals each year.

From a distance, tourists and mourners see the people who make the cemetery’s operations run like clockwork, but few know what it’s like to be part of the team that makes Arlington tick.

* * *

Hours before dawn on an April day, the sounds of rustling hay and clicking hooves and hollering soldiers drift through the stable of the Old Guard Caisson Platoon at Fort Myer, adjacent to the cemetery.

Pfc. Justin Horak, 20, starts work at 4 a.m., an hour later than usual because his team is on duty to clean stables, not to ride with the funeral wagons.

Wearing a knit hat, sweatpants and red tennis shoes, he looks like a lean version of Rocky, ready to run the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He joined the Army at 18 after graduating early from his Dallas high school and studying electrical engineering for a year.

It wasn’t because of Sept. 11, 2001, or Iraq or any specific event. Something was missing, and Horak, who has at least half a dozen relatives in the military and believes in serving his country, thought the Army was it.

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Rookie status

He’s been with the platoon only six months and hopes to lose his rookie status when the next round of riders finishes its 10 weeks of training. He is a silver-spur rider with 79 missions — funerals or other ceremonies. After 500 missions, he’ll earn brass spurs.

His boss, Staff Sgt. Travis Nielsen, 33, is a brass-spur man who knows what qualifications a caisson soldier must meet: “If he’s scared of horses and cries and stuff, he’s probably not going to make it.”

Horak isn’t scared and doesn’t cry. He pays attention to details, carefully leveling hay or polishing saddles, especially those for the horses with no riders.

“I’m big into have a really nice shine,” he said.

Between 14-hour workdays, he loves to hang out with friends, visit amusement parks or putt a round of mini-golf. But there’s nothing relaxed about his work style, especially if he’s riding, and he’s certainly not watching the tourists watching him.

“You’re locked up at attention, so you don’t really see what’s going on,” he said.


“You’re the last respect for some fallen soldier. You want to do the right thing.”

Someday he plans to return to college, but for now, he finds his own honor in honoring the dead.

“People are going to always be saying, ‘Wow, you did that,’” he said. “I figured I want to be that guy.”

That guy will spend most of this day in the stables, but two teams of his comrades are readying their caissons to carry soldiers to their final resting spots.

* * *

An Army band is waiting when the caisson reaches the Columbarium just after 9 a.m. for an Army colonel’s funeral. Midway through the brief service, one of the neatly groomed musicians slips from his mark.

With one hand, he raises his bugle and offers his farewell as the four notes of the military’s most recognizable, solemn melody dance across the air.

“It is work, but there are definitely some days where it’s been kind of hard to stop thinking about certain situations, mostly with the active duty funerals.”
Staff Sgt. Michael Jury
U.S. Army Band

Staff Sgt. Michael Jury plays the same tune a dozen or more times on some days for funerals, wreath-layings and other ceremonies. But that doesn’t ease the pressure. If he goofs, everyone will know.

After all, it’s Taps.


“It’s very deceptively simple,” he said, “but because of that, there’s really no hiding.”

He picked up the trumpet in sixth grade and believes he first played the tune in his hometown of Grand Ledge, Mich., at a cemetery after a Memorial Day parade. At 32, he’s turned it into a career.

He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music and aspired to be in an orchestra, but those jobs are rare, so he auditioned successfully for the U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own.”

He met his wife, who plays oboe in the band, before graduate school, and she joined the Army band a year after he did. So abundant are their musically inclined friends that their two young daughters think everyone plays an instrument.

Jury, the son of a Vietnam veteran, played at the Tomb of the Unknowns for the first time straight out of basic training, knees knocking.

“It’s like, you might as well be naked out there,” he said. “But you know, after a couple hundred times, it’s sort of like — it becomes pretty routine.”


Another part of his routine is jam time with jazz masters Miles Davis and John Coltrane, on the iPod in his car. Their stylings are full of emotion; his are not. They simply can’t be.

“It is work,” he said, “but there are definitely some days where it’s been kind of hard to stop thinking about certain situations, mostly with the active duty funerals.”

He’s never been brought to tears and tries to stay removed, but it’s challenging to play when the music prompts young widows to weep or mothers to shriek and fall to the ground.

He’s done a handful of funerals, too, when no one shrieked, no one cried, no family showed up. At those funerals, aside from the bugler and a chaplain and the firing squad, the only mourner is an Arlington Lady.

* * *

From her affable, upbeat style, it’s hard to tell that Margaret Mensch has spent nearly a decade overseeing a group of women who volunteer to mourn. She joined the Arlington Ladies, soldiers’ and officers’ wives, in 1977.

Now in her 70s — she won’t say exactly — Mensch has spent as many years with the group as her husband spent in the Army. Since 1999, she has chaired the Army division of the Arlington Ladies, organizing a crew of 63 volunteers headquartered in a cramped office in the cemetery’s administration building.

Arlington Ladies

Sunshine or snow, an Arlington Lady is present at every soldier’s funeral to ensure that none is buried without someone there to grieve. The group logged more than 2,000 services last year.

When next of kin attend a funeral, a Lady also presents two sympathy cards — one handwritten note and one printed on behalf of the U.S. Army chief of staff.

The women pride themselves on adding a personal touch while separating themselves from the emotion of the grieving families, she said, adding that Arlington funerals aren’t like others.

“This is very hallowed ground,” she said. “Arlington is just special.”

It could be a depressing task, but she doesn’t dwell on it. This day, her mind is on her grandkids, a new granite kitchen countertop and a luncheon she’s attending. She sets off from the office with high hopes that the gray sky will clear, as the weatherman promised.

* * *

When the sun cracks the clouds in early afternoon, a funeral for an Army colonel’s wife is underway in Section 60. A backhoe rumbles to a stealthy stop down the road, and a tall, lanky figure in mud-stained shoes climbs out.

The cap over his silver hair shades his eyes as he watches from afar, like always, while mourners leave the casket at the grave site. His will be the last goodbye.

Some visitors shoot curious glances his way, and occasionally a stranger comes over to say thanks, realizing what his job must be. A patch on his work shirt says “Claude,” but everyone calls him Cal.

He’s 70, a father of four and a Texan for most of his life, which explains why he consumes a jalapeno like a daily vitamin during lunch. Before and after lunch, he closes graves.

With inches to spare, he maneuvers the backhoe between rows of white headstones, which he covers to shield them from the dirt that’s about to arrive. When it does, it takes less than 10 minutes to hand-rake the earth and compress it with a metal plate on the backhoe.

“I respect everybody that I bury — man, woman or child … but that’s the only time I get upset.”
Claude Callahan
civilian equipment operator


It’s routine, but every movement reflects extreme care. In the distance, he can see the part of Section 60 where Operation Iraqi Freedom soldiers are buried. He doesn’t like to think about those graves. They make his eyes gloss, his cheeks turn pink, his voice waver.

“I respect everybody that I bury — man, woman or child … but that’s the only time I get upset,” he said. “See, I was in Vietnam.”

He grew up in Wichita, Kan., joined the Army at 17 and ended up in the military police at Fort Hood, Texas. It was there, in 1960, that he took up skydiving after seeing a guy fall from a plane and wondering what had just happened.

That was 12,437 jumps ago — and counting. After two decades, he retired from the military and vowed never to work for the government again, only to become a civilian equipment operator at Fort Hood. He and his wife moved to Virginia four years ago, where he accepted work at the cemetery: “A job’s a job.”

He’s coming off a yearlong battle with prostate cancer, which he won with the help of radiation therapy. There are other worries, but work isn’t one of them.

The living

“I don’t take this job home with me,” he said. “I walk out that gate, it’s a whole new ball of wax out there for me. Get home. Play with my dog. Do my thing.”

At the fresh grave, he gently rearranges the flowers for the colonel’s wife before leaving for the next site, and then the next. By 4:30 p.m., Claude Callahan will head home, through the mess of traffic he despises, to the land of the living.

(The author is a writer with the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire.)


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