The white marble headstones stand in perfect alignment. They create the impression of being in formation.
Names of those buried here, along with the wars in which they served, their military branch and their rank, are etched on the headstones.
A large American flag waves gently atop an 80-foot flagpole, often at half-staff, looking over the cemetery’s 292 acres.
All is quiet.
The National Cemetery of the Alleghenies is the final resting place of more than 22,000 veterans from across Southwestern Pennsylvania and parts of nearby West Virginia, Ohio and Maryland. It is one of 151 national cemeteries in the United States.
“Every day is Memorial Day here,” said Ed Hajduk of Cecil, a Navy veteran who has been cemetery director since 2016, as he stood among the rows of white headstones. “It’s sacred ground.”
The cemetery, in Cecil, Washington County, will honor the sacrifices of those buried there at 11 a.m. Sunday as part of its observation of Memorial Day.
The cemetery grounds are meticulously kept by a full-time staff of 10 caretakers and six office workers who coordinate funerals and other cemetery duties. Seventy-five percent of employees are veterans.
“This cemetery is awe-inspiring,” said John Vallus, who was there Tuesday for his mother’s funeral. Mary Ann Vallus (Krey), 75, died May 17. She served as a sergeant in the Air Force during the Vietnam era. She was buried during a service with full military honors.
The grounds reminded the Vallus family of Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
“When I look around 360 (degrees), I have respect for and am grateful to every veteran here,” John Vallus said.
“It’s just beautiful here,” said Anthony Vallus, 74, of Munhall, who was presented with an American flag that was on his wife’s casket by a member of the Air Force. “We never would have met had it not been for the service.”
Every year during the weeks of Memorial Day and Veterans Day, 100 flags that had been draped over a veteran’s casket and were donated are erected on 25-foot poles at the entrance to the cemetery. Each flag is 9½ feet-by-5 feet. The flags are placed along a driveway loop that is referred to as the Avenue of Flags.
“This is a national shrine, and we treat it as such,” Hajduk said. “When you see these flags blowing in the wind, it really gets to you. I know where they are from. It puts it all in perspective.”
The flag on the main pole at the cemetery, which flies 365 days a year, is placed at half-staff a half-hour before the first funeral of the day and 30 minutes after the last funeral.
The cemetery averages eight funerals a day.
Certain qualifications must be met for a national cemetery to be built, but specifically it needs to be in the vicinity of a major veteran population, Hajduk said.
Cecil was chosen, he said, because in 2005 there were 323,000 veterans within a 75-mile radius. Sites in Plum and Westmoreland County were considered but eventually ruled out, he said. The land is owned by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Crews broke ground in 2002, and the first burial and interment took place in 2005. Construction continued until 2009.
The next-closest national cemeteries are about 90 miles south in West Virginia, another about an hour south of Cleveland and another — Indiantown Gap National Cemetery — near Harrisburg.
Funerals at the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies are held most days during the week.
In all, there are about 22,470 interments, including veterans and spouses. The cemetery does not keep track of veterans by county, but visitors can locate a gravesite by searching a veteran’s last name at a kiosk at the cemetery.
Volunteering to help
On a recent Tuesday, team members from Giant Eagle volunteered to clean the headstones with sponges and water in preparation for Memorial Day. They joined other groups from places such as Home Depot, Philadelphia Insurance and the Army Corps of Engineers.
Walter Durr of Chippewa, Beaver County, is director of operations for two retail support centers for Giant Eagle. He connected with Hajduk and brought 56 volunteers over two days to assist with cleaning the headstones.
It’s about keeping the cemetery pristine and respectful, Durr said.
Stones are cleaned twice a year — before Memorial Day and before Veterans Day. There also are people who volunteer throughout the year for various service projects, Hajduk said.
Jessica Sabatini, a front end team leader at the Vandergrift Giant Eagle, and her son Nathan Sabatini, a stocker at the New Kensington store, were among the volunteers.
“Every stone we cleaned, I made sure to read every name and headstone fully, silently thanking each of them for their service and sacrifice,” Jessica Sabatini said. “This cemetery is such a beautiful and serene place, a fitting homage to our veterans.”
Tom Beaver of Bethel Park has sounded taps during more than 1,500 funerals, most at the national cemetery. He handled 300 funerals in 2021. An Air Force veteran, Beaver said a walk through the cemetery in the early days inspired him to learn to sound taps.
“The cemetery is so beautiful. It is meticulously manicured,” Beaver said. “Being in the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies is an extremely moving experience. When you walk past all the graves and read the veterans’ names and the conflicts they served in, it’s almost surreal.”
JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact JoAnne at 724-853-5062, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .