Caring for soldiers’ graves

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Michael Rood has spent 15 years taking care of the grounds of Maine’s only national cemetery.

TOGUS – Michael Rood walked the garden of granite, picking twigs from between the cemetery rows and brushing away bits of dirt from the top of the milky white stones.

“I feel proud here,” Rood said, leaning against a long-dead soldier’s tombstone until it stood straight. “I think of these guys. I try to give them respect. Our society would definitely be changed without them.”

America promised each of the 5,373 soldiers here – the occupants of Maine’s only national veterans’ cemetery – that they’d be cared for after their deaths.

It’s care that Rood gladly gives.

The 47-year-old groundskeeper mows the lawns, rights the stones and cleans the hallowed 31 acres as if each soldier here were a general.

“To me, every day is Memorial Day,” Rood said.

The Togus National Cemetery opened just two years after the Civil War concluded. The War Department had opened the veterans’ home the previous fall. As the sick and injured soldiers died, they were given plots on the nearby hill.

Some were veterans of the just-concluded “War of the Rebellion.” They were joined by soldiers of other wars: the Mexican War and the War of 1812.

“I have people here from all over the country,” Rood said, walking among the graves of sailors, infantrymen and cavalry officers.

Among them is David Scannell, a Marine Corps private from Boston who won the Medal of Honor for his role in China’s Boxer Rebellion of 1900.

Joseph Zisgen, a cavalry private from New York, is also here. He was part of the 25-man unit that captured and killed John Wilkes Booth, days after Booth’s assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Also interred here are several African-American cavalrymen, known to Native Americans as “buffalo soldiers.”

People ask Rood if he’s heard voices or seen ghosts.

“I haven’t seen a ghost, yet,” he said. “But anything’s possible in this world.”

It can be lonely, though.

The cemetery draws people every day, mostly workers from the hospital looking for a tranquil lunch spot, but few come here for the soldiers.

The last veteran was buried here in 1961. Only two or three people each year make requests for information on the soldiers, said Rood’s boss, Larry Ayotte.

Boy Scouts come every spring to plant flags beside the graves on Memorial Day weekend. Occasionally, someone appears with a flower to plant.

Mostly, Rood is here alone.

He follows a pair of owls who live in the knots of old oaks, and he watches the seasons pass.

But every day, he thinks of the people buried here.

“I did eight years in the service in three different branches: the Army, the Navy and the Coast Guard,” Rood said. “I went through three different boot camps.”

He knows what these soldiers’ sacrifices meant.

Yet, even after 15 years, he has questions about their graves.

Unlike the perfect symmetry of the Arlington National Cemetery, the lines bend sometimes. Behind an obelisk, a single row of graves forms a semi-circle.

The men buried there, officers and enlisted alike, were from different units in different states. Yet, they have spent more than a century together.

“I don’t know why they did that,” Rood said.

Nor can he explain another row at the cemetery’s center, which has one tombstone that faces in the opposite direction from all the others.

The writing on the stone, perched atop a knoll, tells visitors that this man was a musician from Germany.

Rood has spent years trying to figure out why it was situated this way, above the graves of so many.

“Maybe he’s conducting,” he said.

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