Randall Keel doesn’t have friends or family members buried in the majority of cemeteries he visits, but he treats each one with the same dignity and respect as the ones where he does.
Keel, senior program manager with the Office of Army Cemeteries, was part of a team that traveled from Arlington, Virginia, to Fort Gordon last month. The purpose of the trip was to first identify any deficiencies at the Fort Gordon German and Italian POW Cemetery by conducting an inspection. Then they returned Nov. 16-20, this time with equipment to bring the grounds up to Army standards.
“We just recently published Army Regulation 290-5 and accompanying [Army Pamphlet] that establishes standards and measures that we apply to every Veterans gravesite that’s under the care of the Army, and the same standards and level of care that we employ go for every gravesite – from the Kennedys at Arlington National Cemetery to each and every one of these,” Keel said.
There are five different categories of eligibility for Army cemeteries, Keel went on to explain. The nation’s largest, Arlington National Cemetery, has its own eligibility criteria, as does the U.S. Soldier’s and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery. The historic West Point Cemetery in West Point, New York, is limited to members of the U.S. Corps of Cadets. Other cemeteries, such as the Fort Benning Main Post Cemetery in Georgia, is open to Veterans and their dependents. It is also the final resting place of four Chinese allied pilots, seven Italian and 44 German prisoners of war.
“In addition to those, we also have prisoner of war cemeteries that we consider ‘closed,’” Keel said.
The Fort Gordon German and Italian POW Cemetery is one example. It contains the remains of 21 German POWs and one Italian POW from the World War II era. According to the Office of Army Cemeteries, the POWs buried there died from either “accidental or natural causes while housed as prisoners” at what was known then as Camp Gordon.
“We don’t anticipate ever going to war with Germany or Italy again, so there’s no anticipation of any more interments ever taking place at these cemeteries,” Keel said.
Despite them being former enemies on the battlefield, the Army acknowledges that each person buried at these POW cemeteries is worthy of the same dignity and respect shown in U.S. cemeteries, so it sends people like Keel to ensure each is being properly maintained. Basic maintenance such as landscape grooming is the responsibility of each installation. Certain things beyond that, such as movement of headstones, typically warrants outside help. That’s where the Office of Army Cemeteries came in.
“We care for other nations’ fallen just as we would hope that they would care for ours,” Keel said.
Headstones at the Fort Gordon cemetery had sunk several inches over the decades, which is fairly common especially in soft, southern soil. Following AR-290-5 guidelines, Keel and his team took out a plethora of tools, got to work and carefully raised them to meet the standard uniform height of 26 inches, which Keel said increases legibility of inscription. They also made sure that each was aligned/level, and that the turf surrounding the cemetery was healthy.
As the overseer of Fort Gordon cemeteries, Renee Lewis, Fort Gordon cultural resource manager, Environmental Division, said the results from Keel and his team were amazing.
“We’re super-thankful that they were able to come down and help us because it looks so different,” Lewis said. “It’s almost surreal to me how different it looks because they’re so much taller.”
Lt. Col. Sasha Blankenburg, German liaison officer, was also impressed, not only by the outcome, but by the act itself – something he said his fellow country’s men and women would be grateful to know is happening.
“You have their former enemies taking care of their graves … I think it’s a very strong picture you have here – that you have Americans taking care of German graves even if they were former enemies. To say, ‘Hey, this is how we can sort of overcome this disagreement, hatred, you name it.”
Echoing what Keel expressed, Fort Gordon Garrison Commander Col. Shaw Pick said the Army takes the responsibility of caring for fallen service members – foreign and American – very seriously.
“If service in the profession of arms is one of the most honorable ways to serve, and I believe it is, then it follows that we owe those who give their last full measure of devotion a respectful and meticulously maintained resting place,” Pick said. “And in the case of our German and Italian POWs, it is no different.”
The Fort Gordon German and Italian POW Cemetery is located at the end of 13th Avenue, near Gate 2.