By KARL Puckett, The Beaufort Gazette
BEAUFORT, SC (AP) – Staff Sgt. John Bentley and Pfc. Esteban Villa walked towards each other as the American flag they were folding grew smaller. Wearing white gloves, they tucked it in and patted it, just like that, and communicated in a low voice – “Ready, fold.” “Ready, turn.”
Then the young soldiers at Fort Stewart turned abruptly to a couple in their 70s, Charlie Read Jr. and his wife, Alice, seated in the front row. In the name of a grateful nation, a triangle-shaped flag as tight as a button was presented for the World War II service of Charles Read Sr. and Valerie Leyrer Read, veterans who were Read’s parents. Charlie wiped away tears but described the service afterwards as a “happy event”.
“They were inseparable in life,” Read, of Sun City, said of her parents. “And here they will be together for eternity.”
Life goes on in 2021 at the Beaufort monument, 158 years after it was created by President Abraham Lincoln. Here, you can find 9,000 Civil War veterans, including Black and Confederate troops—sometimes side by side—as well as men and women from all wars. Soldiers, sailors and airmen continue to be buried here today, just as they did during the Civil War.
Like the Reads, all veterans are given ceremonies with military honors and secured final resting places under tall live oaks and saw palmettos. There is no cost.
But time catches up with the old cemetery where more than 30 American flags lined “Palmetto Drive” for Veterans Day.
More than 17,000 tombstones began to tilt or sag, or both, due to the shifting ground. Those tombstones are now repaired as part of a $3.1 million overhaul. A longer-term age-related problem cannot be solved so easily: Beaufort National Cemetery, spread over three blocks and 44 acres, could run out of space in 15 to 20 years, marking its end as than active cemetery.
“There’s really no area to expand,” says the National Cemetery Administration’s Jeff Applegate, the cemetery’s deputy director.
The cemetery, one of the nation’s oldest final resting places for veterans, features 26,959 headstones honoring veterans from the Civil War to the war in Afghanistan. It is located on one of the busiest streets in Beaufort, behind a brick wall.
An estimated 2,500 people visit the Eternal Oasis each month, making it one of the city’s biggest attractions, attracting not only families with loved ones, but also historians and returning Marines who are trained near Marine Corps Recruit Depot-Parris Island or Marine Corps Air Station-Beaufort, Applegate says.
The cemetery’s deep connection to the country’s Civil War history, its age, its idyllic setting and the unusual way it was designed make it a serene place in these changing times.
“It changed in small increments,” Applegate explains, “but it really hasn’t changed since they first conceived it.”
Arranged in the shape of a half-wheel, its oyster shell roads, starting from the hub, form the spokes, and the holm oaks, magnolias and palm trees dominate it.
Then came COVID-19 in early 2020. The pandemic initially ended memorial services, with only direct burials permitted for several months to prevent the spread of the virus. Services eventually returned, but with restrictions on crowd size. Many people have postponed burials or memorial services until ceremonies are allowed again in late 2020.
Now services are back to normal. In fiscal 2021, which ended Sept. 30, burials hit a near-record high of 729, an increase of 28%, after slipping to 567 in 2020.
“Look at him,” Read said, standing in the shade of live oak trees and pointing to the sea of headstones, moments before his parents’ ceremony. “It’s beautiful. There’s nothing nicer than that.
Charlie Read’s parents, who were from Suffolk County, New York, died just four months apart in 2001 in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Her mother was the first woman in the United States to serve as a county commander in the American Legion, Read said. His father was elected commander a few years later. She was a housewife. He was a locomotive engineer. At the end of World War II, both served in the United States Army, he as a heavy machine gunner in the infantry, she as an X-ray technician in the Army Medical Corps.
A retired U.S. Air Force major, former New York State Police trooper, and former special agent for the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office, Read knew almost immediately that Beaufort National Cemetery was the right place. for his parents after his visit on Memorial Day. Certainly the history and beauty stood out. But Read also noticed that the husbands and wives were co-interred, with their information on either side of the headstone, which made a big impression.
He was so moved by the Nov. 9 ceremony for his parents that he caught up with members of the military honor guard afterwards to offer his hand and his thanks. “I know it’s a tough concert,” he told them, still with tears in his eyes.
Beaufort National Cemetery has existed since February 10, 1863, two years before the end of the Civil War, when Lincoln established 13 national cemeteries needed for the growing number of war dead. Initially, burials were of Civil War soldiers who died in hospitals or on battlefields. Over time, veterans of nine additional wars, in addition to peacetime veterans and, in some cases, spouses, young children, or fully dependent adults, joined them.
Today it is one of 155 National Veterans Cemeteries. Of these, 75 remain active. Eventually, Applegate says, cemeteries run out of space and stop allowing new burials. This process happened faster in eastern cemeteries than in larger western cemeteries, Applegate says.
In 2009, the historic 30-acre portion of Beaufort National Cemetery, the portion surrounded by the brick wall, was expanded from 10 to 15 acres at the rear, outside the wall. Today, most burials take place there.
But, ringed with homes, Beaufort National is expected to reach capacity in 2035 or 2040, the cemetery administration, which is part of the Veterans Administration, Applegate said. If it closes to new burials, the cemetery would still remain open to the public, but a search would likely begin on 200 to 300 acres in the area for a new cemetery to be developed, he said.
“But none of those decisions have been made yet,” Applegate said.
Immediately, a $3.1 million project is underway to elevate and realign approximately 17,445 markers that have settled and moved over time within the historic 30-acre section. This requires a full-time crew who painstakingly remove each marker, place aggregate underneath to stabilize it, then reinstall it and ensure alignment and height are correct.
A new irrigation system will also be installed at the same time. A grass that survives better under tall trees will also be planted. The entire project is expected to be completed by May 2022.
The Louis Brown II Cemetery representative greeted the Reads as they arrived for the ceremony. Lights flashing on his vehicle, Brown led the two-vehicle procession to a small shelter, where the flag ceremony and the playing of “Taps” by Pfc. Oscar Cardona finished in 10 minutes.
Then, cemetery caretaker Alex Garcia placed the small urns in the ground. Markers have been ordered that will say, “I got out of breath,” for Charles Read Sr., who worked for the Long Island Railroad, and “I’m going to make reservations,” for Valerie Read, who loved going out for a ride. and dinner.
Charlie Read gestured to the row of headstones. His parents, he said, will join their “brothers and sisters.” “They all wrote the check in blank,” Read said. “They put everything on the line.”
Read and his wife decided that they too would be buried in Beaufort National Cemetery.
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