JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. - As a Missouri National Guard chaplain prepares for retirement, he can reflect on a 15-year span that includes presiding over nearly 1,500 funeral services.
Since receiving his commission as an officer in the Missouri Army National Guard in 1999, chaplain and St. Louis native Lt. Col. Andre d'Arden has presided over a record number of funeral services at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, said state chaplain Col. Gary D. Gilmore.
"One of the timeless duties of the Chaplain Corps is to honor the dead," said Gilmore, senior Army Chaplain for the Missouri National Guard. "At a military funeral, a chaplain's presence provides strength and comfort to a veteran's grieving family, and d'Arden has stood beside many families on their hardest day."
Despite the high number of funerals d'Arden has performed, he said each one is a special, sacred event. Serving as a comforting force for families during a difficult time has kept him highly motivated throughout his tenure at Jefferson Barracks.
"It's an honor to serve the loved ones of our veterans," said d'Arden. "Some people think my job sounds very sad, but really it is just the opposite. When you are helping people, you feel good about what you are doing. The families are grateful for your counsel and words of comfort. When you put a smile on someone's face at such a sad time, you have achieved a great feat."
The unique position d'Arden fills as a National Guard chaplain at a cemetery has allowed him to perform 1,494 services to date. His long-standing assignment at Jefferson Barracks is one of the only positions in the U.S. military where he could achieve this milestone, Gilmore said.
Upon receipt of his commission as an officer, d'Arden immediately began providing his services at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, one of the National Cemetery Administration's oldest interment sites.
Since its establishment as a national cemetery in 1866, Jefferson Barracks has been home to veterans of every war in American history. The site also served as the Army's first permanent base west of the Mississippi River.
With the exception of a few services at private cemeteries, d'Arden has performed all of his ceremonies at Jefferson Barracks.
The Missouri Military Funeral Honors Program, which originated in 1999, was designed to provide Missouri veterans funeral honors for their burial. Through the program, d' Arden acquired his training and has been performing his duties.
"The number of funerals Chaplain d'Arden has performed is a symbol of the Missouri National Guard and the Missouri Military Funeral Honors Program to providing continued commitment, care, and service to the Soldiers and Airmen of the Missouri National Guard as well as all other service members and their families during their time of need," Gilmore said.
Retired Major Willie Smith, now director of the funeral honors program said, "Missouri exceeds the national standards as to what Families receive when their veteran is buried. Missouri may be the only state that works to provide chaplains when the family requests them."
He also spoke about the effect the chaplaincy, including d'Arden, has had for the family members of veterans.
"Chaplains play a vital part in the healing process for the veteran's family," Smith said. "Chaplain d'Arden has set a high mark for chaplains by performing the number of services."
Missouri's Chaplain Corps is one of the best in the nation. It is a privilege to work with Missouri's dedicated and professional chaplains," Smith said.
Military chaplains have the unique work of supporting families during difficult times.
"Regardless of their faith tradition, or a lack of personal faith, a military chaplain supports and honors the veteran's service and sacrifice for all," Gilmore said. "Chaplain d'Arden has, in effect, represented all who wear the uniform by providing final tribute and words of comfort. I am proud of his dedication to this difficult task."
d'Arden plans to retire from his 20-year military career in February. He first served as a radioman in the U.S. Navy 1974 - 1978. After a break in service, he reentered the military in 1999 with deployments to Iraq in 2004 - 2005 and Kuwait in 2010 - 2012.
Though d'Arden may be retiring from the military, he said he will not retire from serving others.
"I plan to look for ways to provide chaplain service to military funeral honors even after I retire," d'Arden said.