Florence National Cemetery Crew

The grounds crew at Florence National Cemetery is composed predominantly of veterans who make sure their fellow veterans are well cared for at the end.

FLORENCE

Veterans and their family members buried at Florence National Cemetery have their services seen to by fellow veterans — and those veterans are glad they can be there to provide that service.

“It’s an additional way to serve your community and your country,” said Marvin Henderson, the outreach coordinator at the cemetery. “It appeals to my emotional state as far as it is something that draws me closer to God through my employment through the spirit of grief.”

Florence National Cemetery was established at the end of the Civil War at the location of a Confederate POW camp. It contains the grave of the first woman ever buried at a national cemetery: Flornena Budwin, a Philadelphia native who enlisted with her officer husband to be able to stay with him.

Before arriving at the Florence Stockade, she had been imprisoned at Andersonville. She died at the age of 20 of pneumonia in Florence.

A Florence native, Henderson attended all four Florence School District One high schools in one way or another — West Florence, South Florence Vocational, McClenaghan and Wilson — in addition to Williams Middle School and Royall and Greenwood elementary schools. He graduated from West Florence High School.

Henderson, who served in both the Marine Corps and the Army in the First Gulf War era, never had “trigger time, thank the Lord for that.” He has worked at the cemetery for more than six years.

He mustered out with a medical disability, then fate kicked in.

“I was in retail here in Florence and was tired of chasing that commission rabbit,” Henderson said. “The VA opened the door for me to go back to school, so I graduated from Coker College and came on board here as a work-study, and things developed from there. I graduated Coker with a sociology degree where I just studied people, and that’s what I enjoy doing — talking to people.”

Through turnover, Henderson rolled into a temporary position at the cemetery, and then a permanent position.

“I enjoy working here,” he said. “It’s just a different type of spirit when you work with people who are grieving and mourning the loss of someone. It helps my spirit to be able to provide some type of comfort.”

William Stevens, a U.S. Army veteran who served from 2003 to 2010 — which included Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007 — said he was lucky to get the position he has at the cemetery.

“I get to make sure they get the proper burial they deserve,” Stevens said of veterans.

Stevens said it is also therapeutic in a way to work in a community with other veterans who know what time in the service is like.

There is one adjustment he had to make, though.

“It takes a little getting used to the honor guard firing the rifles, but it’s OK,” Stevens said.

It’s good working with other veterans, said Shawn Stacey, who served with the U.S. Air Force in the United States, Iraq and Afghanistan from 2009 to 2013.

“They know what it means and what these people have been through to this point in their lives to deserve being buried at this site,” Stacey said.

It has its challenges, but it’s a great place to work, said John Zigler, a U.S. Air Force veteran who saw combat as he served in the United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Korea and Kuwait and who has been at the cemetery since 2010.

“It’s very humbling. You’re basically the last person the families are associating with their loved one,” Zigler said. “Seeing them in the most time of need they have.

“We establish a lot of relationships with family members who, up until the time they come here, we didn’t know them. They cherish that bond with someone they can see every time they come see the grave site and the compassion the crew, everyone here, gives them.”

Zigler said the cemeteries stand out from other branches of the VA in several areas.

“I don’t think you get that feeling of family and compassion with the other branches you get here,” Zigler said. “We’ll help them find a grave, explain the floral policy. We’ll give them hugs if they want a hug. It’s very warm and welcoming out here.”

John Wright, an Army veteran who served in Germany, Kuwait and Iraq, was working in an Upstate New York National Cemetery part time when he was offered a full-time job at Florence National Cemetery.

“Most of the time, we don’t know the people, so it’s not that hard,” Wright said. “A couple of weeks ago, we did have to bury one of our co-workers, a friend we used to work with. I worked with him for five to six years, and I know his kids.

“It was hard, but it was nice, because we were taking care of him and knew he was all right.

“To quote a private from the Confederate Army, even though I’m a Northerner: ‘The veterans that come in, we want them to have dignified burials, and we want their families to leave better than they came.’”

Kenneth Taylor doesn’t look at it as a job.

“I’m involved with the church, and I do a lot of volunteering at nursing homes, so coming here was in line with what I like to do,” said Taylor, a U.S. Army retiree who served in Germany, in the United States as well as at both The Citadel and Fort Jackson.

“My dad was a preacher, and it was all about church,” he said.

Working at the cemetery brings Taylor back to what he’s done all of his life.

“It’s something I like doing,” Taylor said. “I know it’s something I like doing and take very seriously.

“To me, it’s an honor to be able to do it. I really look at it as we try to help families. When we talk to families on the phone, you hear their pain.”

Wright said they know families are going to be distraught when they come to the cemetery.

“We want them to leave knowing their loved one was taken care of with the utmost respect,” he said.

Zigler said he will retire here.

“I love this place,” he said. “I love coming out here. I love the challenges we do have. My wife and I will be interred here when the time comes.”

Florence is Henderson’s home.

“I’ve lived here almost all my life, since I was 5 years old,” he said. “This is my town. This is my cemetery.

“I take it and carry it wherever I go. Death is a part of life. We all have that final appointment.”

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Digital Editor Matt Robertson is a veteran journalist who has fulfilled just about every role that a newspaper has and now serves as a key member of the Morning News’ newsroom by maintaining SCNow.com and covering the occasional story and photo assignment.

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