DIXON — Every day is Memorial Day to the people who ensure the country’s veterans get the final honors and resting place that they deserve at the Sacramento Valley National Cemetery.
“If you don’t have compassion, you don’t belong here,” Cemetery Director Cynthia Nunez said of what it takes to care for the nation’s fallen and serve the families who are there to give their final farewells. “It is something you never get used to. You grieve with them, you cry with them.”
“It is a lot of hard work and compassion,” said Douglas Campbell, one of the national cemetery’s cemetery technicians, who prepare the memorial services and then respectfully inter the veteran’s remains after the services.
An Army veteran with 10 years in the service, Campbell describes his job as “a little bit of everything,” ranging from operating the cemetery’s heavy equipment to assisting family members and “comforting them at times to make them feel better.”
Fellow cemetery technician and 24-year Air Force veteran Cesar Balmaceda described that part of his job as pretty emotional, “especially when we see a child there.”
Balmaceda was not sure at first whether he wanted to work in a national cemetery. He described the first two weeks there as very emotional.
For all of them, it’s a solemn duty that they would not trade for the world.
“We are here to serve the veterans. Maybe it’s our destiny,” Balmaceda said.
Craig Allen, retired Navy chief petty officer and operations foreman for the national cemetery, grew up in Davis and has known a good number of those Davis-area veterans – from policemen to teachers, including the former Marine who founded the landmark Davis restaurant/brewery Sudwerks.
“It is a huge responsibility to work here,” said Craig, who has worked at the cemetery since it was started. “Our job here is to make sure it is done right, not only with dignity and respect, but correctly.”
During Administrative Assistant Nancy Passarelli’s first two weeks working with veterans and their families arranging for services and interments, “I would cry all the way home,” she said. But, she said, it gave her a deeper understanding of the importance of what she does, helping those people “who are bringing us someone they love.”
Program Assistant Arlene Salvador spent part of her 21 years in the Navy as an honor guard, conducting final honors and presenting the flag to the family. She never thought her post-Navy career at the national cemetery would be working with both honor guards and families of service members.
That includes handling important details, from verifying correct spellings and dates on the grave markers with the family to meeting them a half-hour before the memorial service to ensure everything is going according to plan.
“I find a lot of personal satisfaction with what I do,” Salvador said.
The gratitude shown by the families is an important benefit, whether a compliment and embrace or, in the case of one service member’s widow, making it a point to bring the cemetery employees chicken and refreshments whenever she visited her husband’s gravesite.
“She treated us like we were her boys,” Campbell said.
The cemetery handles about 14 to 16 services a day, with the workday starting at about 8 a.m. as the cemetery technicians conduct a roll call and an informal morning meeting to see what services are scheduled and to move out the equipment they need.
“I come in by 7:15, so that I can prepare myself emotionally and mentally,” Balmaceda said.
The final services of the day usually wrap up by 3 p.m. so that the technicians can inter the veterans’ remains by 4 p.m. The timing allows families to have time that day to visit the interment site. Families are not allowed near the interment site while their loved one is being interred, “but they can watch from a distance,” Balmaceda said.
Grounds maintenance is contracted out, but the cemetery’s appearance is strictly regulated with turf no more than an inch high, grave markers kept scrupulously clean and the ground kept level, with no indentations.
Passarelli remembers one conversation with a veteran who was changing his burial plans from a longtime family plot to the national cemetery, “because he said, ‘I know that the national cemetery will always be kept up’.”
The cemetery’s workforce is further backed up by volunteers, such as the Patriot Riders, who accompany the funeral processions; the Army National Guard Honor Guard, which renders final honors at some of the services; and the Solano County Sheriff’s Office, which keeps an eye on the place and neighboring land owners. They say they can always use more volunteers.
During the federal government shutdown, Nunez got a call from a neighboring landowner telling her that some suspicious people were doing something on the cemetery’s grounds. An investigation revealed local residents who showed up to maintain the cemetery’s appearance.
“It was people from Dixon who took it upon themselves to cut the grass,” Nunez said.
Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ithompsondr.