Memorial Day, Every Day
One Army chaplain talks about his duty to honor the service and sacrifice of veterans at Arlington National Cemetery year-round
Lt. Col. Keith Croom's first reaction is to crack a joke and a smile. He has the ease and charm you would expect from a man raised in the South. You probably wouldn't call him serious, and definitely not somber.
Until you bring up his job. Because there's not much funny about his job.
Croom is a chaplain in the U.S. Army, assigned as that branch's senior chaplain at Arlington National Cemetery. His office, with four chaplains under him at the rank of captain, buries more than 20 veterans or their spouses every day.
It's a physically draining job, with chaplains performing up to six funerals a day for up to two years.
"My guys are coming in from the gravesite basically just to wipe the sweat off their face and go meet with the next family," Croom said. "It's an honor and a privilege, and it's a busy one."
It's also an emotionally draining job.
Chaplains at Arlington spend a lot of their time contacting the families of the deceased, to give directions and guidance on the funeral ceremonies and to find out more about their loved one.
"It'd be very easy for the chaplain to fall into the honors [traditional military burial ceremony] out there, because it's so structured. As pastors, as rabbis, as priests, we want to personalize it," Croom said.
"These four guys are the best guys I've worked with. They're the cream of the crop. You've got to have the right people who are comfortable dealing with families in chaos, in grief. They are hand-picked to be here. They're guys that we know, mentally and emotionally, can come here and bury 1,000 people in two years."
In March, Croom conducted the burial service for the late Army Cpl. Frank Buckles, the last surviving American veteran of World War I.
Extensive education and experience prepares military chaplains for the difficult task of counseling and burying members of the armed services.
Chaplains are required to earn a bachelor's degree and go to seminary, the equivalent of a three-year master's degree program. Croom said that, typically, the long preparation of chaplains means they're older than your average officer of similar rank.
Croom, 44, is younger than most of his peers in the chaplaincy. He got a head-start on his career, seeing it as the natural result of his upbringing as a devout Southern Baptist and the son of a Green Beret.
"When I was 15 the Lord called me into the ministry. Plain as day. There's a lot of things in my life that I question. My call into the ministry is not one of them." With a laugh, he added, "And all I had ever wanted was to be a baseball player or an Army guy, whichever came first."
During college in West Palm Beach, Fla., Croom had a friend who was a Navy reservist.
"He came out of his room one day in his uniform and he was carrying a Bible. And the light bulb went off."
During his 19 years in the Army, Croom has spent most of his time at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, but has stationed at other bases across the country and in Japan. He served in a support hospital outside of Baghdad in 2003, he said, during the initial push into Iraq. In 2008, he deployed with special forces units to Afghanistan, where he lost 16 men.
Croom, who lives in Fairfax with his wife Kelly and their two sons, ages 14 and 8, has been at Arlington for five months -- long enough to appreciate the hard work that goes into honoring veterans and their families. Assignment at Arlington, Croom said, is not usually a chaplain's first choice.
"Most of the captains, they want to be with soldiers," Croom said. "They want to deploy, and they want to bring the Lord to the soldiers. That battalion is their church."
He continued: "We take very seriously laying our heroes to rest. And we appreciate the honor of it before we get here [to Arlington]. But after you get here, the more you do this, the more important it becomes."