Like silent sentinels, the trees at our nation’s national cemeteries serve multiple solemn purposes.
Givers of shade to grieving families, a place for a veteran to lean upon when the realities of war seem to close and silent sentries to the thousands who lay in rest.
The trees are often overlooked – but on Wednesday they received some extra special attention.
A crew of 18 arborists volunteered their time as part of Saluting Branches – Arborists United for Veteran Remembrance, trimming overhanging limbs, pulling up roots, fertilizing and preventing dangerous insects from infecting hemlocks that line the final resting place of U.S. veterans.
A national effort, 36 total cemeteries were the recipients of some tender loving care from highly skilled tree workers who answered the call for the second straight year.
Chad Peevy, grounds manager at Old Dominion University, spearheaded the team at Culpeper National Cemetery. The nephew of local businessman Tom Boyd, Peevy jumped at the chance to volunteer in Culpeper six months ago and began assembling a crew, including his father Orion who traveled all the way from West Virginia to volunteer.
“I found out about it on an arboriculture website,” Peevy said. “I immediately realized it was something I wanted to do. I contacted the organization and volunteered for the Culpeper National Cemetery. They asked me if I would be the site leader and I agreed right away.”
It was a welcome sight for Lance Pridemore, Director of Culpeper National Cemetery, to see the arborists at work.
As the sound of chainsaws entered his office, Pridemore smiled about the work being done by the volunteers.
“They are doing an outstanding job, I really appreciate these guys coming out volunteering their time and expertise to help us,” Pridemore said.
The tree situation at Culpeper is tenuous at times, as old growth threatens the headstones and causes more work for the staff.
“It’s something that creates continuous management,” Pridemore said. “With the maintenance of the monuments, because of the trees they have a major effect on the monuments. We get mold on the monuments because of the shade the trees provide. The stuff these guys are doing, we can’t do in house and we’d have to hire a contractor. This would have cost us thousands of dollars.”
For the volunteers, taking immense pride in their work made the day worthwhile.
“We’re making the cemetery safe, more aesthetically beautiful and honoring the veterans who are laid to rest here, their families and their friends,” Peevy said.
Peevy said one of the greatest assets was having climbers like Matt Lee and bucket trucks donated by Asplundh Tree Expert Co. and Nuckols Tree Care.
“Personally, I feel like arborists services are very unique and what we are doing out here is providing a unique service that enhances the property and honors the veterans,” Peevy said. “The bottom line for me was honoring the veterans in a way that I can also do something I love and something I can do at the highest professional level.”
Peevy and co-leader Tim Nuckols visited the cemetery two weeks ago to do a site visit and had an opportunity to witness a ceremony honoring one of the fallen. That drove home the importance of the work they were about to do.
“We knew right away we were doing something good,” Peevy said.
For veterans like Luke McCall and Ron Cash, Wednesdays work was extra special.
Both Dominion Virginia Power employees now, both McCall and Cash served in time of peace. As they helped use guide lines to bring tree limbs safely to the service, avoiding their fallen comrades, the two reflected on the importance of their mission.
“It’s a privilege, it’s an honor to be here,” McCall, who served in the Army, said. “I was lucky enough to serve during peacetime. I studied to be an arborist at Virginia Tech and all those things are based on the foundation the military gave me. It’s very special to give back, it feels like the right thing. This is definitely a highlight.”
For Cash, a Marine Corps veteran, the reason to help was clear.
“These guys,” Cash said, motioning to the granite grave markers all around him, “I gave four years but I came home. I got benefits. I got an education out of it. These guys gave everything. I just gave four years. The least I can do is give back a little bit to them.”