This is a place where soldiers who served their country come to rest.
Songbirds call to one another as wind rustles overhead through the leaves in the trees.
As far as the eye can see, tombstones line the horizon.
And that is why a crew from Pishny Restoration Services in Lenexa has for the past six months been quietly tugging and pulling at the decades-old tombstones, straightening them to military perfection.
A total of 1,528 soldiers are buried in the section of the cemetery currently being restored. They are veterans of battles fought in World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
It is called a post cemetery because that’s what military installations were originally called. This cemetery dates back to 1853, before Kansas was declared a territory in 1854. The oldest grave in the cemetery is dated 1855. Kansas was declared a state in 1861.
“People get upset if they don’t know what’s happening with soldiers’ graves,” said Collen McGee, chief of internal information at Fort Riley. “We have a contract to realign half of the headstones in the cemetery. It’s all being done by hand.”
The fort received a $500,000 grant from Arlington National Cemetery to straighten the stones.
About 3,000 soldiers and their spouses are buried at the Fort Riley Post Cemetery, which is considered part of the national cemetery system overseen by Arlington.
All told, there are 135 national cemeteries in 40 states and Puerto Rico, and 33 soldier lots and monument sites, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website. Fort Riley’s post cemetery is nearly full. The fort donated land for another cemetery, the Kansas Veterans Cemetery at Ogden.
“Part of the Army creed is never leaving a soldier behind,” McGee said. “And that includes those in our cemeteries. They will never be left behind.”
So far, the crew has completed work on about 170 tombstones. Winter’s cold and recent rains have prevented the crew from getting more done.
“Over time, the ground heaves, and in times of drought, the ground settles and the stones shift,” said Michael Sekulich, project manager and engineer technician for the fort’s public works department.
Crews had to take a break during winter when the ground was hard, said Nick Luttrell, one of the workers with Pishney Restoration.
“We started again in spring and have been at it for the past four or five weeks,” Luttrell said.
Machines might do the job faster.
But that’s not the point.
Respect comes in silence.
Honor comes with peace.
“We do a lot of historic renovations on buildings and monuments,” said Gary McDonald, job superintendent for Pishny Restoration. “But we feel honored to do this job. I come from a military background. My father was in the Air Force. I know the sacrifice military families give.
“You look at these headstones and see that some of these men have served in several wars,” McDonald said. “You put that in perspective, and they spent the large part of their life defending our country. People still come and honor them and pay respects. We are here to make it respectful.”
On a good day, the crew can straighten between 14 and 20 stones. Recent rains have delayed progress.
The work is tedious: carefully dig around the stone, pull the stone gently, adjust the height of the base, add sand for height. The top of each stone must be between 24 and 26 inches from ground level.
Tears come to Sekulich’s eyes when he thinks of the soldiers.
“When they started this, it was to honor the soldiers. … It’s just hard to talk about,” he said.
When visitors come, the crew quietly leaves and goes to another section of the cemetery to offer privacy.
“Most (of the stones) are only a few inches off,” McGee said. “But when you get a whole bunch of things that are off by a few inches, it is disconcerting to the eye. There should be a line.”
It is part of the military vow and creed to honor the people who have served their country – in life and death.
“It’s real delicate work,” Luttrell said. “You don’t want to break a stone. With machines, you run that risk.”
Each day that he arrives at the cemetery, Luttrell writes down the names on the tombstones that are being taken out and set back in.
It causes him to think about each life.
“These people saw things that no person should have seen in their lifetime,” he said. “You honor them by making sure their memorial is right.”