Matthew Priest comes from a long lineage of soldiers.
Priest, the new Director of the Culpeper National Cemetery Complex, now has the responsibility of helping his fallen brothers be laid to rest.
Priest’s grandfather, father and brother all served and he served two tours in the Army – one in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It was those experiences that led him to want to find a way to help honor the fallen and still be involved with the military.
“We lost a couple guys down range,” Priest said. “We held the barrels up at Arlington. The dedication that the staff at Arlington provided for our fallen comrades was amazing. I kind of new I didn’t want to stay in the military, but I knew there was another opportunity to serve this nation.”
Priest, who started his new position in August, said he was drawn to Culpeper after completing his schooling earlier this year in St. Louis, Miss.
“I’m still learning Culpeper,” Priest said. “I grew up in a small town so I love the small town feel. I chose this location, because it is a small town and I love the humbleness of everybody.”
This is his first assignment as a director, after completing a year-long internship. An MP in the Army, he was one of 13 to finish the program this year and be placed at national cemeteries across the nation. The gravity of the subject of burying his brothers is not lost on him.
“It’s heavy, but it’s honorable,” Priest said. “We have one time to do this correctly. Everything has to be done perfectly every single time.”
He said the cemeteries employ 1,800 nationally and more than 80 percent of those are veterans.
In Culpeper, he has a staff of nine that also are caretakers of the Winchester National Cemetery, Ball’s Bluff National Cemetery in Leesburg and Staunton National Cemetery.
“We provide oversight for all of those, from burials to ground maintenance,” Priest said.
For Culpeper, there are two sides to the national cemetery. One is historic and the other active. There are 30 acres of burial ground and more than 12,000 are interred in Culpeper, where the national cemetery is ranked 69th by burial rate out of the 135 cemeteries in the nation.
According to Priest, Culpeper has averaged 300 interments over the last two years.
“One of my main missions is to the let the community know, not just in Culpeper but surrounding counties, that we’re here,” Priest said. “We’re in your backyard and we can provide services and benefits to anyone in this area. We’re projected to be open for the next couple decades.”
To be eligible for burial, veterans would have served on active duty and received an honorable discharge. There is a new program called pre-need where veterans can fill out a form and mail it in to see if they are eligible for burial in a national cemetery.
Priest said meeting the needs of area veterans is his primary concern and one of his main projects is obtaining an above ground mausoleum for urns.
“That’s one of the needs the community has brought to me,” Priest said. “I think that would be one good thing for this community, to offer one more burial option that they didn’t have before.”
Under his watch, the national cemetery is also undergoing several renovations including repaving roads and renovating the lodge that sits on the property that dates back to the 1900s.
“We just want to make it more aesthetically pleasing,” Priest said.
Priest will host his first Veteran’s Day ceremony Saturday, Nov. 11 at 11 a.m. The keynote speaker will be Brett Reistad, candidate for National Commander of The American Legion.