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NEWS | July 13, 2023

Serving those who’ve served

By Abraham Essenmacher Joint Base Langley-Eustis

At 7 a.m., Saturday, July 8, with the heat index already at 78 degrees, Soldiers from the 128th Aviation Brigade, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, and students who are in Advanced Individual Training (AIT), gathered for a community mission; providing maintenance and care of the Elmerton and Bassett cemeteries in Hampton, Virginia.

These Soldiers have coordinated with the Barrett-Peake Heritage Foundation’s restoration project to come out twice a month to mow, trim, and keep these two historic locations to serve the very community supporting them.

“I hope they get a sense of some of the history that is here, but also pride in what they’ve done,” said Whalan McDew, who is President of the Do Gooders of Hampton Roads. “These service members come from all over the country and around the world, and they come out here because they have a heart of service. They are being a part of the community that they’re in, and hopefully, when they leave here, they’ll continue that.”

The group effort between the community and Soldiers began in 2020 and has been consistent ever since. McDew still recalls the first time Soldiers came out to help.

“The first weekend that volunteers from the Army came out, I had actually thought something else that was big was going on because the road was blocked off,” said McDew. “But when I pulled into the parking lot there a lot of trucks everywhere on the lot, and there was actually about 70 Soldiers and their families that came out to help us!”

These cemeteries are predominately African American and two of the oldest in Hampton Roads, which also include service members as far back as World War I. Another prominent resident of the Elmerton cemetery is Mary Peake, best known for starting a school for the children of former slaves starting in the fall of 1861 under what became known as the Emancipation Oak Tree in present-day Hampton.

During the summer months, these cemeteries quickly become overgrown with grass and foliage from the Virginia climate. Some areas would become immersed in grass and weeds as tall as four feet if it weren’t for the volunteer efforts of these citizen Soldiers.

“I hope they gain that it’s bigger than themselves and that the Army extends outside of the ‘gate’,” said Army Captain Darrel Davis, 1-210 Aviation Regiment Chaplain. “We’ve come this far in part based on some of the folks that are buried here.”

There are over 500 grave markers between Elmerton and Bassett cemeteries, spreading across nearly five acres of land, which could be an arduous task to maintain. On this day, it becomes easier as the Army has a team of 52 Soldiers providing the labor.

“It’s truly a blessing, as an old Army guy, so to see the Army out here helping and it makes me feel humbled,” said McDew.

For Pfc. Emeetril Lopez, 1-222 Aviation Regiment, AIT student, the time spent volunteering is also a moment to express his personal thanks to those who rest at the cemeteries.

“This is really important to me because it shows our gratitude to the people of the community, and also of the people who fought for us too,” said Lopez.

It’s also a chance for Lopez to see the commitment to community from his fellow Soldiers and teammates.
“What really stands out is reuniting with people from the community and also seeing our chain of command working alongside us, so they are serving both the community and us as junior Soldiers,” he said.

Four hours after these Soldiers began, both Elmerton and Bassett cemeteries were once again visible to those who live around and travel within the Hampton Roads community. Residents could walk about and see the names and legacies of those who contributed their service to America, both home and abroad.