Dirt poor, hungry and homeless. This was Arlan Maples’ life until he was given a 15-month, all expenses paid trip to Europe because he won “the lottery”. The winnings included travel, meals, lodging, clothes, money and many activities. All this for a struggling 18-year-old fearing for his future. Unfortunately, the activities were compulsory as the lottery was the World War II draft.
“They said, ‘All you have to do is kill a few Japanese and you get this new pair of shoes, underwear and socks,’ and he said, ‘Oh yeah, I am in,’” says Arlan’s son Steve Maples, 65, of Springfield, Mo., who idolized his father and followed in his military footsteps.
For Steve Maples’ uncle Porter McDaniel, he thought killing Koreans and Chinese was an easier job than toiling on the family farm to put dinner on the table. Likewise, Steve Maples’ only son, who died 11 years ago, thought joining the Navy just meant free college tuition.
“Myself, I am just a mean-spirited, old sociopath who loves to fight,” Maples says while laughing hysterically, tilting back in his mahogany-stained office chair at the Missouri State Veterans Cemetery in Springfield, Mo. He has served as cemetery director for five years, burying some of his closest friends.
At first, veterans enlist in the military usually for personal gains until they realize their greater global purpose.
“We sign on the dotted line because we didn’t know much else, ” Maples says. “But you’re motivated to make the world a better place. You see a great wrong that needs to be righted.”
Sometimes when the workday slows, Maples weaves on the cemetery’s golf cart through the lined granite headstones and reminisces about his fallen friends. He rattles names off: “Shannon Kilty, bright young lad; Phil Barnsworth, he taught me what I know about plumbing and household electrical wiring; Ronald Blystone, he was a good lad doing good deeds for the goodness of the world, and he died for it; Sylvan Durham, his two kids and wife died from cancer. When he died from cancer too, we brought them all together. That was especially hard.”
The more epitaphs Maples read, the more his eyes brewed tears. One dropped.
“I have been in a lot of places that you wouldn’t want to go,” Maples says recounting his 29-year Army tour, fighting in places like South and Central America, the Pacific Rim, Europe and the Middle East. “This is not about me though. This is about the service we provide in an honorable way like these people have served their country.”
The Missouri State Veterans Cemetery, located adjacent to Lake Springfield off Highway 65, is situated on 60 tranquil acres and has a capacity of about 30,000 gravesites. The cemetery facilities include a committal shelter, administration and maintenance area, paved walkways with benches and two columbariums for the placement of cremains.
Because the Springfield National Cemetery on Seminole Road was reaching full capacity, the National Cemetery Association established the Missouri State Veterans Cemetery, which held its first interment on Jan. 10, 2000.
“It was a terrible mess,” says maintenance supervisor Kevin Barlow, the only original employee left at the cemetery. “We had no grass, just red clay and gravel. We had about 80 burials that were on hold. They really did bombard us whenever we did open.”
Like most cemeteries, the primary duty at the Missouri State Veterans Cemetery is burials, which can range from two to 13 daily, and managing the 65 acres by mowing, weeding, grass planting, pruning on more than 600 trees, killing insects with pesticide treatments and maintaining roads and sidewalks. But military standards make the cemetery unique.
“We stack our vaults and caskets,” Barlow says. “Most cemeteries in the private sector are side-by-side. They dig holes about 4-and-½ feet. We dig them up to 12. Our grave plots are smaller. It is really simple geometry.”
To make the 260-lb headstones symmetrical, the 11 cemetery workers must measure the land in 90-foot grids. Each gravesite is 5-feet wide and 10-feet long.
“Looks like a brigade formation standing at attention,” Maples says. “Everybody straight. Square.”
Grave digging is a more complicated process than just scooping out dirt.
It starts when a funeral home contacts the cemetery about a veteran who is qualified by being in good standing and by having an honorable discharge. Spouses and underage children are eligible also.
“Everything we do inside this facility is at no cost to the family,” Barlow says. “It is part of their veteran’s benefits through the government. Everything comes from the government—from toilet paper to diesel to our shirts.”
The funeral home has about four days to schedule the service, which lasts 15 minutes involving a three-round volley, the playing of taps and the folding of a flag to hand to a designated family member.
“Some families just want to do the internment and go home,” says Maples, who ministers at most services. “No preaching, no nothing.”
Paperwork about the headstone, like personalized engravings and religious symbols, should be submitted within 10 days. It takes anywhere from 30 to 60 days to get the headstone in, which is then set within 48 hours if the turf is dry.
Then the grave digging begins. First, the crew uses a backhoe to dig a 7-foot deep hole. Next, they lower the concrete vaulted casket and cover it with gravel to the height of the grave liner. Last, the dirt returns and fresh topsoil is placed on the last 6 inches once the ground is packed.
“I know it is gross, but this is probably my favorite part because I like to make it right,” says five-year cemetery worker Ray Hicks, who served in the Air Force for 22 years. “These guys all need to be treated with respect and dignity.”
Although the workers mostly have construction or horticulture backgrounds, sometimes digging somebody’s grave can have an emotional impact.
“I have had a few people who worked for a couple of weeks and say, ‘No, I can’t do this’ or ‘This hits too close to home for me,’” Barlow says.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of the dirty and oftentimes depressing job is the positive feedback from thank-you letters.
“You are making a difference in such a critical moment in people’s lives so it is rewarding,” says Tonya Nichols, who works the front desk as cemetery representative. “We see people on so many different stages of grief, but we get the opportunity to care for them. That’s important. It’s a supportive role.”
Remembering the sight and smell of bloodstained battlegrounds during the most famous wars in American history has caused Maples to lose much of his childhood faith although he ministers funerals almost everyday.
“I don’t see how a kind and loving god can allow some of the things to happen that I have witnessed and participated in,” Maples says. “If that’s what it takes for them to get through someone’s passing then I respect that.”
Even without endorsing the American slogan “In God we trust”, acting selflessly by serving the country is what gives Maples peace through tough times.
“Not enough people do good deeds anymore, and that’s why I feel good about doing this for folks,” Maples says. “You know how in a crisis people always say ‘Somebody ought to do something?’ You’re the one that’s got to do it. However long it takes you to reach that determines the amount of sacrifice that you’re willing to make on behalf of your fellow men to make this world a better place.”
A family member of army soldier John Brown cries during the interment on Friday, April 13, 2012 at Missouri State Veterans Cemetery in Springfield, Mo.
Cemetery worker Ray Hicks carries flower bouquets away from a burial site on Friday, April 13, 2012 at Missouri State Veterans Cemetery in Springfield, Mo.
Cemetery worker Adam Gammon, who is also a disabled airborne veteran, controls the backhoe to fill the gravesite with dirt on Friday, April 13, 2012 at Missouri State Veterans Cemetery in Springfield, Mo.
Jerry Hatfield’s gravesite is successfully dug at 7-feet deep on Friday, April 13, 2012 at Missouri State Veterans Cemetery in Springfield, Mo.