Todd Newkirk has had a steady, varied and colorful career of serving and helping others.
That includes spending 21 years of his life wearing a U.S. Air Force uniform, first as a security policeman and then, as the military was downsizing its combat arms, being retrained to become a substance abuse counselor.
After taking off the uniform for good, the native of Smyrna, Ga., spent another 15 years as a Department of the Army civilian in the mental health field, at one point assisting wounded troops returning from combat during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He also has worked at Fort Benning’s Martin Army Community Hospital.
But now, Newkirk, 53, has taken on yet another mission of assisting others in their time of need. In January, the resident of Buena Vista, Ga., became assistant director at Fort Mitchell National Cemetery off Alabama Hwy. 165, just south of Phenix City and Columbus. It falls under the oversight of the Alabama National Cemetery in Montevallo, Ala., where Quincy Whitehead is the director.
It is at Fort Mitchell that Newkirk and a small but dedicated staff works constantly to keep the cemetery’s 280 acres neatly manicured and the headstones of just over 8,000 military retirees, veterans and family members buried there clean and standing tall. That’s all so that those mourning and paying their respects to the dearly departed will feel a bit of comfort knowing their loved ones are now resting in a serene, beautiful place.
The Ledger-Enquirer visited with Newkirk recently at the national cemetery, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this weekend with a 1 p.m. ceremony Sunday at the main flag pole on the grounds. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
Q. What is it about this job that you enjoy?
A. To me, there is no more perfect job than this, because you’re serving the veterans, you’re working at a national shrine, you’re in the most beautiful location in the world. It’s gorgeous, it’s peaceful, it’s serene. There’s just no better place to be than right here all day, every day.
With the Air Force and your civilian jobs, you’ve got a history of helping people?
Yeah. I was the patient representative at Landstuhl (Regional Medical Center in Germany). I was in complaint resolution and making sure they got the proper level of care and accessed care appropriately. Sometimes the health care field can be a cold and lonely place. It was just making sure that people got the level of care that they wanted. That was right as the war was cranking up. We had three or four evacuation planes a day bringing in wounded soldiers ... It was a good feeling to be able to do stuff like that.
Q. Is your current job similar in any way to those you held before?
A. It’s similar. My wife and I, we are a team, with everything we do. She’s a social worker for the Army; she treats (post traumatic stress disorder) troops. Everything we do is about taking care of soldiers. So this is the culmination of that.
Q. How has it been dealing with people here, the veterans and retirees and their family members? Can it be sad at times?
A. It’s sad and serene. I don’t get to spend as much time with them as you would think. My job is a manager, and that’s why I got hired. I’m the cemetery administrator, so I lead and manage the people and resources out here. I do get to do cemetery representative duties periodically, which is leading the funerals out and being there for them. But it is fulfilling to be there for them and make sure everything here is the best possible experience that they can have during one of the worst times of their life.
Q. How many staffers do you have?
A. We have nine people and then two in the work program. So we have 11 folks — two administrative folks and the rest are caretaker types that manage the grounds and the equipment. They work day in and day out to keep this place as clean and spotless as possible.
Q. That means a lot of mowing?
A. It’s a continual process that hinges on weather and season, of manicuring the grounds, applying chemicals, keeping up with the growth of the trees and the grass, cycling through the different areas that we have out here, putting down mulch and pine straw, trimming trees and bushes.
We have 280 some odd acres out here. We have over 8,000 graves and they have to pay attention to each and every one of them, because each and every one of them is critically important to somebody. Everyone has to receive individual and special attention. So every morning it’s a process of going out and straightening the flowers and the flags that the deer knocked over that night, because they have a voracious appetite for flowers. It’s cleaning up the messes made by the weather, picking up the leaves and sticks that have fallen or blown down. And then starting the day of mowing and weed eating and cleaning the grounds.
Nearly every day there are burials, so graves have to be opened, the interment shelters have to be set up for the ceremonies that go on, and the burials have to be taken care of. Each one has to be meticulously documented to ensure that the right person goes into the right grave, and that the right marker gets placed in the right spot, because that’s the critical feature of the job.
Q. How much room is left to develop here?
A. We have about two years of burial space left, although by the end of (Fiscal Year 2018) they will be putting in a 1,000-niche columbarium, which is a wall unit for cremation urns. Right now, we do cremation burials in the ground. Then (next year) they’ll put in 3,000 more burial spots for casket remains. That will keep us going for another five to seven years, and then we’ll expand again.
Q. The columbarium, in essence, is a response to demand?
A. It is. The funeral directors and pastors in the local area will tell you that cremations are on the rise. At the VA cemeteries, everything from the gate in is free of charge to veterans. When you come out here with a casket, you come with a funeral director, so you’re paying for that. But with cremated remains you can transport those yourself. So that’s less expensive. We have burials frequently where people have had cremated remains in their home two, three, four years or more, and they decide it’s time and they bring them out here to bury them. As long as they have the appropriate documentation, we’re able to assist them with that.
Q. And you provide them with a headstone?
Q. The expansion and columbarium is a big moment in the cemetery’s lifespan?
A. It is, and it’s just part of the growth cycle that all of the cemeteries go through every five to 10 years. So it’s kind of exciting.
Q. So you’re always busy with maintenance and burials and other work? That means there’s not much down time to enjoy the beautiful surroundings?
A. Friends and families are always amazed. They think, what could you possibly have to do at a cemetery. You must just sit out there all the time and do absolutely nothing. (laughs) I’m like, ‘we are busy.’
Q. With Main Post Cemetery virtually full for casket burials, does that mean you expect burials to pick up here? After all, some have said that Fort Mitchell is a bit of a forgotten cemetery.
A. I only have the knowledge of being here since January. I think part of it is Fort Benning has always been there, but Fort Benning is now primarily closed to casket remains. Alabama National Cemetery is up near Birmingham and they catch a lot of Birmingham and Montgomery, two major populated centers of Alabama.
But I do think that we are somewhat forgotten and we try to get the word out that we are here. Veterans who have served on active duty for two years or more, their dependents, their wives and their dependent children … are eligible to be buried here.
Q. What is the most challenging aspect of your job here?
A. It’s probably balancing time with weather and the burial schedule, because you can’t control either one of those. Burials have to be done. You can’t control the weather, and weather determines when and how you do certain aspects of the job. But everything takes a back seat to the burials and taking care of the people that come in here. The veterans and their families are A-number-one. Everything stops for that.
Q. We’re coming up on Memorial Day weekend. Tell us about that?
A. Veterans Day is for the living, Memorial Day is for those who have given their lives for our nation, so that is our greatest holiday (as a cemetery). By an executive proclamation, we also do ceremonies for Vietnam veterans recognition for the anniversary of the Vietnam War. We do that for the next 10 years to recognize the 50th anniversary of that ... and in May we did the 100th anniversary of World War I.
Q. Finally, what do you enjoy most about your job?
A. Probably the most satisfaction I get from my job is working with the people here, my staff. They always amaze me, because I come up with some crazy ideas like: What if we did this to try to make something better or look better? Then they just pile on top of it (and say), ‘well, yeah, we can do this and we can do that and we can do this.’ The next thing I know, not only have they brought my crazy idea to fruition, but they’ve improved it 15 times and just made it happen.
Q. Which is invaluable as a manager or leader who has staffers who buy in to the mission and not simply show up each day for a paycheck?
A. I know there are other places where employees just look at you like you’re crazy and say, ‘you know, we need to contract that out.’ But they don’t do that here. Any number of the headstones out here you can point to and they can tell you a story about that family. Most of the employees have been here six, eight or 10 years, and they know every tree, every blade of glass. They know the headstones and people who come out here to visit, and they can tell you stories about people who are buried here.
They care. They care a lot.
Hometown: Smyrna, Ga.
Current residence: Buena Vista, Ga.
Education: Has a master’s in business administration from Liberty University
Previous jobs: Served in the U.S. Air Force for 21 years (as a security policeman, then retraining into the substance abuse counseling field); and worked as a Department of the Army civilian for 15 years
Family: Sherri, his bride of nearly 35 years, and one grown daughter, Amanda
Leisure time: Enjoys riding his motorcycle and is president of Calvary Riders, the Columbus chapter of the Christian Motorcyclists Association; he took extensive rides while in the Air Force in Europe