Cemetery director passionate about tending to veterans' remains

Monday, May 25, 2015
Kenneth Swearengin stands Wednesday among headstones at the Missouri Veterans Cemetery in Bloomfield. (Glenn Landberg)

BLOOMFIELD -- Missouri Veterans Cemetery director Ken Swearengin says he doesn't know quite how to describe the sense of honor and privilege he feels at his job, but as a 21-year Air Force veteran, he knows what it means to serve.

"I often wonder how I got to be able to do this," he said. "I have the ability to take care of these people. It's amazing to me."

Bloomfield's 65 acres hold the remains of more than 2,500 veterans and their family members. Swearengin and three other staff members provide interment services and perpetual care for the years after.

21 guns

Most of the veterans at Bloomfield received full military honors, meaning a 21-gun salute, bugler and the presentation of the American flag to surviving family members. Gary Kitchen is part of an American Legion team that performs the honors at Bloomfield and other area cemeteries. He said it's a somber duty, but a fulfilling one.

"There's a saying, 'All gave some, some gave all,'" he said. "All veterans gave some, whether it was being away from their families or being scared. This is a good time to remember their sacrifices."

Kitchen, a retired Army veteran, served in the Marine Corps during Vietnam, where a friend of his died 19 days after arriving in the country.

"I always think of him on Memorial Day," he said. "It's very rewarding for me to be able to do this for the families."

But for Swearengin, the little day-to-day tasks are as important for preserving the memory of those who have served.

"Mowing, hedging, cleaning the streets, setting up flags, anything that's inside the grounds of the cemetery, that's perpetual care," he explained.

Swearengin's coworker, Marty Snider, said what may seem like a small chore can have a big effect on a veteran's family. For Swearengin, it's more of a calling.

"You don't have to spend much time with Ken to realize it," he said. "It's more than just a job to him. Our whole staff goes above and beyond, whether its quitting time or before work, but for Ken, it's his passion."

Personal stake

Swearengin makes a point to treat each veteran and their family members with personal care. Each of the headstones has a story, some filled with medals, others more ordinary, but each characterized by duty, sacrifice and service.

"We have one man who was lost in Vietnam for 34 years," Swearengin explained. "He was in a cargo aircraft, and the whole crew was lost. Years later, they brought him back, and now it's an honor to have him here."

Swearengin also makes a point to be involved in other veterans' organizations. Through his work, he's met many of the men and women who now are interred at the cemetery.

"We have some (prisoners of war) that I met prior to them being deceased," he said. "Bronze Stars, Purple Hearts, they've got great stories. And when you get to know them, when you get to go out and inter them, they're quite special people to me."

The cemetery was built with federal funds, but is operated by Missouri -- a state Swearengin says does an exemplary job of ensuring veterans get the resources they've earned.

"It amazes me," he said. "I'm very proud of my state. It means everything to me. The people of the state of Missouri are willing to provide you a respectful, peaceful place of interment for your service, your sacrifice. It's just heartwarming, that as director, I get to make sure we provide that for them. We owe that to them. A lot of the things we do, part of the funds come from the federal government, but the state of Missouri is, I think, one of the top states for providing for our veterans and making sure it gets done.

"It's hard to explain to people who haven't been involved with veterans or Memorial Days," he said. "But, I suppose, if you enjoy a liberty or a freedom or a benefit in this country today, then Memorial Day is a good time to honor those who have given their lives to ensure those benefits are maintained for the citizens of this country."

Because, he said, the freedoms that Americans embody face opposition.

"It's not something that we have because we want it. I don't understand why, but it's always under attack," he said. "Plenty of people work every day to provide freedoms and rights, but veterans are the ones who are called upon to face exterior threats. We have to remain constantly vigilant, and the veterans are the ones who have provided that."

The cemetery isn't just for the families of veterans, Swearengin said. It's also a place for citizens to come and pay their respects, and not just on Memorial Day.

"The people of Missouri also have a stake in this," he said. "It's open. It's here. This is a physical place where you can come and see what we're doing and providing for our veterans."

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