Our Honored Dead

by John Delach

Robert McCallum is an engraver for the Granite Industries of Vermont located in Barre. “McCallum has been making headstones for over 18 years. He has nine years to go before he can retire with a union pension.”

He leaves his home in darkness every working day so he can clock-in by 6 AM, for his eight-hour shift that allows him time to pick up his daughter when school ends. Each shift, he first applies stencils on approximately 30 tombstones that he uses to engrave the particulars of the fallen

Asked if a tomb stone stands out in his memory, he mentioned Ross McGinnis who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2008. “McGinnis was only 19 when he threw himself on top of a grenade that was thrown into his Humvee in Bagdad. His body absorbed most of the blast, saving the other men inside. I feel sad that McGinnis and these others couldn’t live their lives. They died for their brothers. In my eyes, they did their duty to the fullest.”

Last fall, The New York Times profiled families who lost loved ones on the killing fields of Iraq and Afghanistan during our wars without end.  The essay by John Ismay about McCallum, “Carving Thousands of Headstones,” was the exception. McCallum survived his stint in Iraq with the Charlie Company, 368th Engineering Battalion of the US Army Reserve. He was a construction supervisor, paving roads during our invasion.

The 368th is housed in armories located across southern Vermont and New Hampshire and Charlie Company is based in Londonderry NH. Units like the 368th have been regularly called-up to active duty several times to serve in these perpetual conflicts that ensued following the slaughter of the innocents on September 11, 2001. It is a fact that the Regular Army cannot function without these reservists. McCallum retired from the reserves in 2011 with the rank of staff sergeant.

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After Fort Sumpter fell on April 13, 1861, the Union War Department was remarkably prescient that the ensuing conflict would produce massive casualties. The army issued General Order 75 on September 11, 1861 making commanders responsible for burials and marking graves. Quartermaster General, Montgomery Meigs chose to appropriate Robert E. Lee’s estate to establish Arlington National Cemetery. Wooden headstones that averaged a cost of $1.23 were used to mark the dead, but the life-expectancy of these boards was no more than five years. With the total recovered dead estimated to be around 300,000 the replacement cost would exceed $1 million over a 20-year period.

In 1873, the Secretary of War, William W. Belknap, set the first standards for stone markers. Made from granite or other durable stone, each marker would measure four inches thick, 10 inches wide and 12 inches high. Above the ground the stone was polished and the top slightly curved. Each stone displayed its number, the soldier’s rank, name and the state he served. In 1903, the height was increased to 30 inches, the width to 12 inches and the thickness to four inches. Over the years everything about these tombstones evolved as we evolved.

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Like Robert McCallum, Eddie Puckett was a modern-day stone cutter employed by the Georgia Marble Company. “Eddie figures he’s made 300,000 to 400,000 headstones for soldiers and their spouses during nearly 40 years of work.” So wrote Anna Varela for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“For most of my career I made replacement tombstones for the ones that wear out after 50-years or updated existing ones to include spouses. The past few years have been different, though. With the war in Iraq, there are more names and death dates for soldiers recently fallen. These are most bothersome. I’ve done headstones for all the other wars that you can name – from the Revolutionary War on up. But you kind of feel for the Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers because it’s an ongoing thing.”

Arlington is a solemn oasis across the Potomac from DC.  I witnessed the formality, respect and precision of the service there during my father’s internment. From start to finish every aspect of his service personified our nation’s honor and respect.

Arlington, of course, is where John F. Kennedy was laid to rest. Nobody described it better than Jimmy Breslin in “Digging JFK Grave Was His Honor:”

Clifton Pollard was pretty sure he was going to be working on Sunday, so when he woke up at 9 a.m., in his three-room apartment on Corcoran Street, he put on his khaki overalls before going into the kitchen for breakfast. His wife, Hattie, made bacon and eggs for him. Pollard was in the middle of eating them when he received the phone call he had been expecting. It was from Mazo Kawalchik, who is the foreman of the gravediggers at Arlington National Cemetery, which is where Pollard works for a living. “Polly, could you please be here by eleven O’clock this morning?” Kwalchik asked. “I guess you know what it’s for.” Pollard did. He hung up the phone, finished breakfast, and left his apartment so he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

When Pollard got to the row of yellow wooden garages where the cemetery equipment is stored, Kawalchik and John Metzler, the cemetery superintendent, were waiting for him, “Sorry to put you out like this on a Sunday,” Metzler said. “Oh, don’t say that,” Pollard said. “Why it’s an honor for me to be here.”

Pollard was 42 a veteran of World War II. Breslin concluded:

One of the last to serve JFK, who was the thirty-fifth President of this country, was a working man who earns $3.01 an hour and said it was an honor to dig the grave.