Washington Crossing veterans cemetery offers a final salute

    There’s something eerily familiar about a veterans cemetery. We’ve all seen the endless rows of tombstones, or white markers, often crosses or Stars of David. But when you are standing near a mourning family at this outdoor memorial pavilion, what strikes you again and again is that the uniformity of the cemetery is populated by the stories of individual veterans

    “Dan was close to all of us,” said Debbie McGordy. “He was a field medic and we used to ask him, what do you do? I sawed up a few guys, stitches here, stitches there; he was so casual about it”.

    On May 17, Jim and Debbie McGordy buried their brother Daniel Patrick McGordy, a 62-year-old Vietnam veteran who has just died after struggling with cancer.

    “He had a lot of fun stories about the service, as I have too,” Jim McGordy said. “It’s a bond among fellow soldiers. You can’t explain it.”

    “Everyone here has a common bond, whether they are laid to rest next to a private or a general, a member of the Army next to the Navy, every one has at least one common denominator of service to their country,” said David Kolmetzky, the administrative officer of the Washington Crossing National Cemetery, which is run by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

    “We’ve seen every range of emotion as in any other cemetery,” said Kolmetzky. “Many times we share information with them that they’re not aware of as far as awards and recognition because a lot of the soldiers are so humble they say ‘that’s my job’ whether they were wounded overseas in a war. A lot of them just don’t share that with their families”.

    Since opening in January 2010, 1,800 men and women veterans and their families have been buried here. They served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm. Two of the closest national cemeteries were filled to capacity. A third is only performing cremations. So opening up Washington Crossing means families will be able to bury their loved ones close enough that they can visit easily. It’s designed to admit 124,000 veterans within the next 50 years. On average, there are eight to 10 burials a day.

    As we watch a grieving family from a respectful distance, Kolmetzky explains that each burial ceremony follows strict military protocols.

    “Member of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard will perform a flag-folding ceremony,” he begins.

    Once the ceremony is over, the veteran’s family drives along a road, flanked by National Guard soldiers in formal salute, followed closely by a group of volunteer veterans paying their last respects. They’re members of the Guardians of the National Cemetery.

    When asked why he does this work, Victor Teets said, “Because I’m a fellow soldier, I was in combat in the military and it’s an honor for me. It’s like your brothers and you are sending them off, and I’d like someone to do the same for me someday”

    “It’s important to remember them,” said Gene Hamilton.

    “I feel I’m one of the lucky ones that made it back, so this is the least I can do,” said Teets.

    On this Memorial Day, the Washington Crossing National Cemetery plans a series of events and ceremonies including a special tribute to the Gold Star Moms and soldiers who went “missing in action” or were taken as prisoners of war.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal