By Tribune staffOctober 18, 2018
FORT SILL, Okla., Oct. 18, 2018 -- In one of their final acts of selfless service before graduation, basic combat trainees visited the Fort Sill National Cemetery Oct. 16, in Elgin, to perform community service.
Almost 175 trainees from D Battery, 1st Battalion, 79th Field Artillery, cleaned headstones, and spruced the grounds after a recent windstorm.
Before they began their operations the trainees heard from their battery commander, their battalion chaplain, the cemetery director, and a Patriot Guard rider who escorted them from post.
"This is tremendous help to us because of the man hours," said Bill Rhoades, Fort Sill, and Fort Gibson National cemeteries director. "We have a tremendous amount of acreage here and only six people (on staff) to do it. So any extra assistance we can get helps."
It's fantastic that they are learning about national cemeteries while they are in the military, most veterans never here about it until after they get out of the service, Rhoades said. The trainees were bused to Elgin, about 20 miles from Fort Sill, escorted by several Patriot Guard motorcycle riders. Upon their arrival they viewed a brief video about Veterans Affairs national cemeteries.
Capt. Jean Tomte, D/1-79th FA commander, said having his trainees visit a national cemetery was a dream come true for him before he transfers soon.
"I want you to see the big picture -- that many Soldiers came before you, so that we can continue this thing called soldiering," Tomte said to his trainees. "I told you that the first day of training.
"Go out there and pick up trash with your heart, clean those graves with heart," Tomte said. " Show those guys laying underground that, 'Hey, I'm taking over, so that you can rest in peace."
Tomte said he wants future battery to continue to visit the Fort Sill National Cemetery even after he has transferred.
Billy Hope, Patriot Guard assistant state captain, urged the trainees to continue their community service once they arrive at their first duty stations.
"Get involved in that community, you can make a difference," he said. "Be proud, be proud of that uniform, be proud of what you can do."
He noted one man who wanted to make a difference started the Patriot Guard.
In his invocation, Chaplain (Capt.) Amos Uwadiae said, "Father, as we remember, as we walk around, as we do what we need to do while we're here, may your presence be with us."
Trainee Pvt. Raheem Baker said visiting the cemetery was a time for reflection.
"I see who has done this before me, and about what I'm about to do myself (as a Soldier)," said Baker, who will graduate Oct. 19, with the rest of his battery.
The 400-acre Fort Sill National Cemetery was dedicated in 2001, and was an expansion of the cemetery on post.
It averages 550 burials a year, Rhoades said.
Burials are free to honorably discharged veterans, and without red tape to their families. The grounds and headstones will be maintained forever, and each headstone is considered to be a memorial to the veteran, according to a VA video.
The trainees cleaning the cemetery is just in time for Veterans Day, Rhoades said.