Even on the quietest mornings, when the sun is still low in the sky, the visitor center is empty, and errant leaves haven’t yet been blown off the walkways, Arlington National Cemetery is bustling.
The 640 acres of paradisiacal hills are peaceful and serene, like an impressionist painting. That’s purposeful; the cemetery is the final resting place for 400,000 people who are connected by the bond, and sacrifice, of service to the U.S. military.
The reverent quiet on a recent November morning belies the fact that more 200 federal employees and 300 contract staff are busy readying the grounds and facilities for the estimated 5,000 visitors who will attend the cemetery’s 70th Veterans Day observance, one of the park’s largest annual events honoring those who serve.
The event involves a host of organizations, including the Department of Veterans Affairs, White House officials, Secret Service, local law enforcement and the Army Military District of Washington.
What that entails is a highly choreographed dance of electricians, grounds crew, arborists, mechanics, security guards, planners and others who are responsible for the national shrine’s safety and aesthetic. That work is done all year long, workers told Federal Times, but attention to detail and special touches are heightened this time of year when so much of the cemetery is in the public eye.
“Any day that you’re here, you can expect the unexpected,” said Roy “Rex” Rexroat, who oversees facilities and horticulture.
Planning for Veterans Day starts six months in advance, said Jay Walker, the cemetery’s director of operations. Around the three month mark, preparation work includes painting the ballards, fixing flagstones and heavy pruning of the landscape’s 9,000 trees.
“At this stage, we’ve done the planning, now it’s in the execution phase,” Walker said on Monday. “It’s now time to start putting things in place.”
He means that literally. Chairs are set up with name cards on them. Extension cords and microphones will be staged in the Vermont-quarried marble Memorial Amphitheater to prepare for speeches by the President and other officials.
Tyler Day, an electrician for the cemetery, stood several dozen feet off the ground and hung 43 flags between its columns on Monday. The flag is connected to a rope that he pulls up, unfurling the flag as it rises out of the rolling cart following him on the ground.
“They definitely have a little bit of weight to them when it’s all five of them at once,” he said. “Being an electrician, we’re used to using the lifts, so that’s why they delegate that task to us. We’re just the most confident on the lifts.”
Anwar Saleem, an electrician, said employees “come as one” to tackle all the preparation, whether or not a certain task falls under their usual duties.
“It’s larger than us,” said David Coelho, another employee. “It’s a very large community, and it’s very nice to see a celebration of what they’ve done and what they’ve accomplished.”
Rexroat said noticing these myriad details is second nature for him and his team.
“[It’s at] a level that we don’t even think about it anymore — one of the things that’s ingrained in us,” he said. “If you’re walking, and you see a piece of paper, you just pick it up, put in your pocket.”
Rexroat also said cemetery staff is used to being “on” 24/7, especially in the lead-up to a big event. And unlike other memorials or museums that are protected by controlled air conditioning, walls and ceilings, the cemetery contends with the whims of nature and the public.
The cemetery has issued heat advisories during the summer. The bathrooms take a beating during tourism peaks. Squirrels and wind can scatter mulch beds. Just last month, services were delayed by a reported bomb threat. And every so often, someone will jump a fence.
“There’s [also] a lot of emotion here,” Rexroat said. “People come here, and they’re grieving.”
Walker said there’s little rest for the weary, with planning happening simultaneously for the cemetery’s next big event, Wreaths Across America, on Dec. 16. Still, Rexroat says there’s a brief moment of calm ahead that he treasures.
“My favorite moment of it all is when everything is just frozen,” he said. “And the President typically is speaking and the Secret Service has everything just locked down, and everything that you worked for — all the areas that are behind the scenes, all of the attention to detail ... you get that surreal moment where everything moves slow.”
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.