BENICIA, California -- The Army Chaplain Corps primarily tend to the spiritual needs of the living and, when necessary, to the fallen and their survivors.
In May, Presidio of Monterey chaplain staff got a unique opportunity to take care of Soldiers dead for 169 years.
The last coffin in Benicia Army Cemetery was interred in 1958. The first grave was dug in 1849, when the Army established Benicia Arsenal on Suisin Bay in California's Solano County. In 2007, the Presidio of Monterey commander took ownership and oversight of the one-acre graveyard here.
Chaplain's assistants Sgt. George Grimes and Spc. Christina Leslie were two on a team of six, led by Presidio Command Sgt. Maj. Roberto Marshall, that power scrubbed headstones there May 16-18.
"One of the core competencies for the chaplain corps is being able to honor our fallen comrades," Grimes said. "Being able to go up and tend to really, really old graves made me feel good."
Filling out the group were Sgt. Pablo Becerra, Presidio of Monterey USAG; Sgt. Anis Karami, Company F, 229th Military Intelligence Battalion, and Laura Prishmont-Quimby, Cultural Resources Manager, Directorate of Public Works, who is the command's appointed Cemetery Responsible Official.
Benicia headstone maintenance had not been performed to standard, Prishmont-Quimby said, and before a new contract started, the markers had to be restored to national shrine requirements. Joelle Lobo and Faye Jenkins of DPW staff completed preliminary work and the USAG cleaning crew was headed north May 16.
"We had to find a scarce cleaning agent for the stains and use a power washer at lowest possible PSI," Prishmont-Quimby said. "We cleaned each marker by hand with brushes and bamboo picks in the grooves."
Marshall brought up the project to chaplain staff during a meeting the week before. Sensing a meaningful experience and a chance to get out from behind her desk, Leslie volunteered.
"I love history and seeing graves from the Civil War was appealing to me," she said. "I wanted to be a part of something that's bigger than what I do every day.
"To see the before and the after on the gravestones after we were done, it was like, wow. In garrison, you don't get opportunities to do something like this."
The married, 26-year-old Grimes says death isn't a primary concern to him but this experience comforts him with options that he believes won't burden his two children.
"I've seen some stuff, been deployed, seen combat, even after all that, I didn't necessarily feel that connection with the military cemetery," Grimes said. "The opportunity to be buried in a military cemetery is an honor and appealing to me … It's a legacy I think about."
Only the dead have seen the end of war, according to philosopher George Santayana, but the Army's care of its dead has no end.
"When you realize that people are taking care of military graves 100, 100 plus years later, that really resonated with me," Grimes said. "But going up there, seeing people that were doing what I'm doing 100 years ago, and I'm scrubbing their graves, I feel connected to them in a way that I can't explain. It was a very deep honor."