Honoring Our Veterans at Quantico National Cemetery

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By Helena Tavares Kennedy, Contributing Writer

Everyone’s heard of Arlington National Cemetery, but did you know there’s a national cemetery right here in Prince William?

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Quantico National Cemetery, located on Route 619 in Triangle, is considered an “unknown” national treasure, according to Steven Fezler, director of Quantico National Cemetery/Culpeper National Cemetery Complex. The complex includes the Quantico cemetery, along with the national cemeteries in Alexandria, Culpeper, Winchester, Staunton and Balls Bluff.

Prince William is an ideal location for a national cemetery, said Mark Shaaber, chair of the Prince William Chamber of Commerce’s Veterans Council. “Military service is a long- standing element of Prince William culture,” he said. “To have this hallowed ground in our backyard is truly a fitting tribute to those [who]have served. It is a place to find inspiration when anyone finds themselves being expected to make sacrifices. Many of those remembered in Quantico have given all they had.”

Those buried at Quantico National Cemetery are a reminder of our military’s sacrifices to protect the nation, according to Fezler. “Freedom is not free. As an employee of the National Cemetery Administration for 27 years, more and more each day as I serve the veterans and their families, I realize how precious and costly freedom truly is.”

Quantico National Cemetery is more than a place for families to visit and pay respects to their loved ones. Many people who visit the cemetery don’t personally know anyone buried there. Tourists commonly visit—to honor veterans, pay respects at the graves of notable soldiers and experience the cemetery’s peaceful,  serene landscape.

Louis R. Lowery is one of the notable buried at Quantico. The World War II Marine combat photographer snapped the first U.S. flag-raising on top of Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi in 1945. Lowery is interred in Section 1, Grave Site 6422. The U.S. flag he photographed is said to be the first flown over Japanese territory in World War II. (The famous photo of the second, staged flag-raising was taken by Joe Rosenthal.)

Visiting the Cemetery

Attracting tourists to Quantico is the work of Discover Prince William & Manassas, the local visitors and convention bureau, which is involved in a new initiative to bring groups to the cemetery and provide them with a one-of-a-kind experience.

About a year ago, Discover Prince William Director of Sales Mark Kowalewski read about a special event the Missing in America Project (MIAP) was holding at Quantico National Cemetery, he said. Since its launch nationwide in January 2007, the nonprofit corporation has been locating, identifying and interring American veterans’ unclaimed cremains through the joint efforts of private, state and federal organizations.

As part of its Veterans Recovery Program, the MIAP verifies deceased veterans’ status and schedules memorial services for them and their dependents. The Quantico cemetery includes a section for missing in action (MIA) veterans. Kowalewski thought it would be a moving experience for group tours, highlighting the rich military history of Prince William, he said. Soon after, the tours began.

Tours Bring Awareness

Cemetery staff greet groups or motor coaches for a driving tour of the cemetery. The bus stops at the MIA section, where a MIAP representative boards the motor coach and talks about efforts to find and bring home the remains of veterans that have been left unclaimed all around the world.

Tour groups can walk around, view gravesites and place flags provided by Quantico National Cemetery on them. What was planned as a 20- to 30-minute tour has grown to more than an hour, accommodating visitors who spend time reflecting at the sites.

“The stories they told us and the emotions that it brought up truly made me feel honored to be a part of something so special,” Delaware Express Tour Operator Gerry Hartman said about her former experience with the MIAP at Quantico. “What they are doing for veterans is so amazing and something that needs to be done. Being able to not only hear the stories, but learn how we could help was great.”

Hartman has a Vietnam War Prisoner of War (POW) bracelet, she said. POW bracelets first became popular in the 1970s when millions of Americans bought and wore the metal bands inscribed with the name of an American soldier who was missing in action or a POW in Vietnam.

Many wearing the bracelets were able to get in touch with the POW whose name was inscribed on their bracelet, if the soldier returned from the war. If not, they were able to contact the POW’s survivors. Some, however, such as Hartman, were unable to locate “their” soldier’s remains or survivors.

After her experience at Quantico, Hartman contacted the MIAP and within hours, MIA staff found her POW’s daughter in a remote Alaskan village. “When I wrote her explaining who I was and why I was trying to locate her dad, she was amazed,” Hartman said. “He sadly had died three months earlier, but she and her sister were so excited to get the bracelet back to their family. This would never have happened if not for the Missing in America Project.”

Not Just for Tourists

Quantico National Cemetery isn’t just for tourists. Its location allows Prince William residents to locally honor American veterans. Quantico includes several memorials dedicated to war heroes. The cemetery itself was formally dedicated in 1983 after the U.S. Marine Corps donated 725 acres of its land to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Cemetery Administration to establish a facility at Quantico, adjacent to a Marine base.

Involving the Community

Quantico National Cemetery often needs volunteers, said Fezler, who also encouraged residents to come out and support veterans.

The cemetery holds special events honoring veterans on  Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day. “I appreciate all support that is given to our veterans. … I personally thank those who live in Prince William for their continued support,” he said. Quantico National Cemetery is open daily from sunrise to sunset.

A nonprofit marketing director, Helena Tavares Kennedy also enjoys freelance writing in her spare time. She has lived in Manassas with her husband and two children for 12 years and can be reached at hkennedy@princewilliamliving.com.

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