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Charles Smith preserves Rhode Island’s hallowed veterans cemetery

Photo credit: Rhode Island Veterans Memorial Cemetery.
Charles Smith preserves Rhode Island’s hallowed veterans cemetery
By Pete Levine ·

Maintaining the 40,000 gravestones in Rhode Island’s Veteran’s Cemetery in Exeter is a source of personal pride for Charles Smith. The 49-year-old member of Local 904 (Council 94) says his father, a veteran of three wars, is among those buried in the 125-acre cemetery. Fourteen other members of Smith’s extended family are also buried at the veteran’s cemetery, making his job as a cemetery specialist that much more personal.

Yet, even if Smith didn’t share a personal connection with the land and the markers in his charge, his attitude toward his job wouldn’t change.

“There’s a great deal of pride and integrity in what I do,” says Smith. “We care for the veterans after they have served.”

Ensuring that the cemetery remains unspoiled is only part of the job. Smith and his co-workers are the ones who lower caskets into graves during funerals, or set ashes into the cemetery’s burial wall. Those somber tasks might be a regular part of his daily responsibilities, but for Smith, there is nothing routine about moments when grieving families are watching.

“You always need a couple of minutes to gather yourself,” says Smith.

The veterans (or their dependents) who are laid to rest in the Exeter cemetery may be old or young, active duty or retired, and they come from all branches of the service. But the honor and respect Smith pays to their loved ones is always the same.

Smith’s co-worker, Tim Swanson, applauds Smith for the way he has immersed himself in his job at the cemetery in the two years since Smith joined, and he recently nominated Smith for AFSCME’s Never Quit Service Award.

“Charles loves it here, and it’s good to have someone who cares this much,” says Swanson, a fellow cemetery specialist. “He’s done so much for us in the short time he’s been here.”

In fact, Smith is leading the effort to erect the cemetery’s first monument to Native American veterans. Smith is a member of the Seaconke Wampanoag Tribe. When he realized that there was no existing monument to Rhode Island’s Native American veterans, as there were for other heritages and branches of service, he wanted to change that.

Smith has been working with Rhode Island’s Indian Council to erect an intertribal monument, to honor the Native American veterans who served in the military.

Smith describes the future monument as a 6-foot-tall black granite structure with other stone flourishes, using design touches that reflect Native American beliefs. He’s set up a GoFundMe page to solicit contributions to pay for the monument.  

While Smith continues to do genealogical research to determine which veterans currently buried in the cemetery belong to Native American tribes and could be inscribed in the monument, his overarching goal for the cemetery remains the same: “To keep the cemetery looking pristine and in its current state of excellence.”

Know a co-worker who goes above and beyond the call of duty to make their community better? Nominate them for AFSCME’s Never Quit Service Award.

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