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Mountain Home cemetery work helps keep vets off streets

Rex Barber • Jan 28, 2013 at 10:15 AM

James Barger was working at a local fast food restaurant when he got a stroke of good luck with a job at a cemetery.

This was not just any cemetery, though. It was Mountain Home National Cemetery, where he is a federal employee charged with maintaining a national shrine.

“It’s greatly benefited (me) to be a federal employee and to just serve the veterans that have laid the foundation before myself,” Barger said. “To give back to them is a blessing.”

Barger is one of seven local veterans participating in a program designed to help end veteran homelessness by providing apprenticeships in cemetery caretaking.

Mountain Home National Cemetery is one of only five national cemeteries participating in this pilot program said Donnie Sisk, cemetery director.

The program is a yearlong paid apprenticeship where these formerly homeless veterans or at-risk veterans will be given formal training in cemetery operations.

“They traveled to St. Louis in October of 2012 for a one-week intensive cemetery caretaker boot camp at our national training facility,” Sisk said. “And they completed the same cemetery caretaker training program that our other hundred-plus cemetery caretakers have all completed as well.”

At the end of the program this September, the apprentices will be able to transfer to other national cemeteries that have open positions. These men could also use their training to enter the private business world or they can stay at Mountain Home as permanent employees.

“I will say these are some pretty amazing gentlemen that we’ve got, because it was their decision to try to overcome the adversity that they’ve faced in the past,” Sisk said.

Originally from Roane County, just west of Knoxville, Barger has lived in Johnson City about a decade. He served in the United States Air Force and afterward used his G.I. Bill at East Tennessee State University but did not finish a degree.

The recession hit and made work even more difficult to find, he said, though he did have the restaurant job when the Veterans Affairs cemetery position became available.

Now he is learning how to conduct a proper veteran burial and ensure the grounds always look good. Excavation and lawn care experience are also included in his education. Plus, he enjoys all the benefits that come with federal employment.

“I feel like now I have an opportunity to really turn around and have a better future for myself and for the family, and it’s just a blessing,” Barger said. “It’s just really nice that they give veterans coming back from duty ... a job when this weak economy is going on. And a really, really quality job makes me feel uplifting and makes me feel better about myself. It just feels like I’m heading toward the right direction now with this opportunity.”

Hugh Martin is originally from Charlotte, N.C. He lived in Knoxville and worked as a cook for a time. He came up here from Knoxville when the apprenticeship position at the cemetery opened, which he saw as an opportunity to learn a new trade outside of cooking.

“Everything’s been going good as far as the program,” he said. “When this job came along it made me think twice about retiring. That benefited me a lot. I’ve learned a lot here.”

Martin, 54, was in the Army in the 1970s and the 1980s.

Like Barger, he saw his job at the cemetery as a way to give back to his fellow veterans.

Sisk said he does not know how the program will be administered or what shape it will take in the future but that it was developed in response to the secretary of Veterans Affairs’ initiative to end veteran homelessness by 2015.

Across the country there are 24 apprentices in the pilot program, including the seven at Mountain Home.

Sisk said seven workers were not added at Mountain Home to sit idly around. So service times offered at Mountain Home were expanded by 50 percent to increase the time slots available during the day for burials.

“It seems to have had a positive effect,” Sisk said. “It appears that we’re going to increase the number of burials that we do in a month.

“Obviously, this needs to be a win-win program. We want to help veterans but we also want to make sure that we’re being good stewards of the taxpayers’ money. Because of that, we’re looking at additional services that we can provide to our community and to our veterans.”

The extra employees will also be needed once the cemetery expands, probably in 2014, on a 50-acre tract of land on the other side of the Mountain Home campus. This land was given to the cemetery a few years ago from the Mountain Home Medical Center. The cemetery and the medical center are on the Mountain Home campus. These are separate entities but operate under the Veterans Affairs umbrella.

Barger highlighted the national shrine standard of the cemetery and wanted families and friends of veterans buried at Mountain Home to know that he and the other cemetery workers consider the veterans buried there to be heroes and that the graves are treated with respect and dignity befitting a national shrine.

Sisk said he reinforces that notion.

“I tell the guys we’re not just mowing grass and digging holes,” he said. “We want this to be thought of as you would the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial or the Vietnam Memorial. This is hallowed ground. And we look at, with these extra people, how can we move closer to that national shrine standard?”

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