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History and Heritage

Long May I Live

The voice of the nation's most distinguished resting place

Every day, visitors walk the well-worn paths of our nation's historic sites and national treasures. Experience what it's like to be the resting place of more than 400,000 active duty service members, veterans and their families - Arlington National Cemetery.

The All Hands crew talked to caretaker Rafael Johnson about his service at Arlington National Cemetery.

When Rafael Johnson left the Army, he knew he was not finished serving. Contracting jobs were paying the bills, but weren't filling the hole in his heart that only true service to his country could fill. And then filling the hole became literal.

In 2010, after returning home from a tour in Germany, Johnson saw something that would change his life. Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) was looking for honorably discharged veterans who still wanted to continue serving their country. Johnson knew that message was meant for him.

Since 18 years old Johnson, a former caretaker for ANC and currently a cemetery representative, said he felt a calling to serve his country, so he joined the Army. Now he's still serving, only in a much different capacity.
Navy Photo

In 2010, Johnson was hired as a caretaker for Arlington. Caretakers are responsible for all 624 acres of and the more than 400,000 service members buried at the cemetery.

Although Johnson had no real idea what his job entailed, he knew that he would be readying final resting spots for our nation's heroes.

"My job isn't an easy job," said Johnson. "We do more than just dig graves. We make sure that everything is perfect for the day that a service member is buried here and continue to hold that value after the service is concluded."

Arlington National Cemetery is open seven days a week, 365 days a year and more than three million people walk the grounds of the cemetery.

"It takes more than dedication to work here I believe," said Johnson. "We do more than our job title suggests. However, when we say we are responsible for Arlington ... just saying that alone - people know what we do."

And what they do is make sure families are only focused on what they need to be each day. Caretakers are responsible for setting up gravesites used for funeral and memorial services, including setting up chairs and shelters, excavating graves and cleaning around the graves.

"When loved ones and guest come to Arlington we make sure that there is no dirt on the walkways, the tombs are cleaned every day, that the grass is cut for loved ones to be by their buried and that the John F. Kennedy gravesite is prepared for people to see," said Johnson.

The job of a caretaker can entail extra-long days and nights. In order for a caretaker to excavate a grave site, the family has to be departed and necessary preparations made. Johnson recalled one long night in particular. It was in section 60, the section donated to the fallen from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We had a service and I couldn't mess it up," said Johnson.

The service was for the Navy Seals that were killed in action.

"The Service didn't start at a normal time it started at 4 p.m., said Rafael. "We didn't start working till all the families departed."

As not to rush a single family member or disturb their grieving process, Johnson and his team started the excavation process late in the evening, in the pitch dark.

With more than 25 services per day, Johnson said, it never gets easier. Johnson said he wanted to do more for the families, so he took a job that would allow him to interact with families and truly help them through the process - so he became a cemetery representative.

"Families are at their lowest moment during a service and when you walk into that room the family is looking for someone to lean on and someone who can help them, that is why we are here," said Johnson.

As a cemetery representative, Johnson works with families to handle official paperwork, helps with the design for their loved one's headstone or niche cover, guides families through burial services at the cemetery and provides a strong presence the family can depend on.

"Our service, honor and commitment to [the families] are just the beginning," said Johnson. "We will continue to serve them and I believe in that."