ST. PETERSBURG — It is shortly before nine on a Friday morning, and the heat is already approaching unbearable levels at Bay Pines National Cemetery.
Sweat drips down Gary Iles' face as he kneels on the ground. A cordless yellow drill in his right hand, he puts the finishing touches on a columbarium — a small vault inside an outdoor wall of vaults containing cremated remains in urns.
Iles is a National Cemetery Administration caretaker. His job is to care for the 28-acre property, much of it lush green St. Augustine grass, as well as the remains, the families and the friends of the fallen.
Bay Pines is filled with stories of war and sacrifice. With as many as five services a day, more always are being added.
The work ramps up when Memorial Day approaches and Bay Pines hosts an annual ceremony, this year featuring U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist and the commander of Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater. They will address a crowd expected to be in the thousands.
Still, laying the dead to rest will continue throughout the day.
On this sweltering morning, Iles moves from site to site getting everything ready for another day's funeral services — including one for Charles Villa, 80, an Air Force veteran from Winter Haven.
Iles, a 50-year-old retired Army staff sergeant, considers his job sacred, a calling that he had no choice but to answer once his days in uniform ended.
"The experience working with the families," he says, "is overpowering."
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Bay Pines Cemetery was dedicated in 1933 as a burial ground for patients who died at the Bay Pines VA hospital and domiciliary. The site opened at 21 acres, and by 1964, all available grave sites were used. A survey in 1984 found that another 4,000 grave sites could be added through simple modifications. The survey said some of the land not suitable for in-ground burials could be used to store cremated remains.
The cemetery was transferred to the National Cemetery System and reopened to new burials in 1984. Since 1987, the only space remaining has been for cremated remains — in the above-ground walls, known as columbaria, as well as in the ground — and for casket grave sites set aside for the spouses of those already interred.
Bay Pines is the final resting place for more than 36,000 veterans, from the Seminole Indian Wars through ongoing conflicts. Another 1,000 people a year, on average, are laid to rest here.
It is one of nine national cemeteries in the state and 135 in 40 states around the country. Altogether, more than 4 million veterans and their spouses are buried across about 20,500 acres of cemetery properties.
The national cemeteries were established in 1862 during the Civil War, when Congress enacted legislation authorized by President Abraham Lincoln to purchase "cemetery grounds" "for soldiers who shall have died in the service of the country."
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The beads of sweat off Gary Iles' brow flow faster as he unfastens a 10-pound granite slab that seals the vault where the cremated remains of Charles Villa will soon be placed.
For years, Isles had trained soldiers at Fort Drum in upstate New York, close by the Canadian border.
When he came to Florida about a year ago, after his marriage dissolved, he knew nothing about the national cemetery system. Looking for a way to continue serving, he began to volunteer at the Sarasota National Cemetery, working his way into a full-time job at Bay Pines last October.
Working on the hallowed grounds, especially in the early morning before the first funeral, is a peaceful pursuit.
He works in the order that funerals are scheduled, regardless of whether that means criss-crossing the sprawling property all day, so he can stay out of the way of services.
"I like to open the grave sites in order. I don't want to bother people during the funerals, because they are grieving. I like to give them the utmost respect."
After opening Villa's vault, Isles walks briskly to another site in a line where cremated remains are placed underground.
Checking a plot map to ensure he has the right space, he puts his left foot on a green shovel and works it around the grass until he has a 6-inch deep divot he can remove.
"I don't want to mess up the root base. It is hard to keep the grass green."
So hard, in fact, that Bay Pines relies on agronomists for help. They study the soil, grass and trees.
"You have to give the right amount of water." St. Augustine grass "really soaks up the water."
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Two young airmen, members of an Air Force honor guard, stand at attention as a line of eight cars snakes through the cemetery. The cars stop and about 20 people get out, slowly settling in for the ceremony.
A plastic box containing the urn with the remains of Charles Villa is placed on a podium. Like many of the boxes here, this one has been decorated with memories of the deceased — a photo of a large-mouth bass, a University of Florida Gators insignia, and Villa's military dog tags.
The honor guard folds an American flag in the time-honored tradition.
All is quiet except for the buzz of the lawn mowers and trimmers and birds chirping.
The family rises. Taps are played. The guard hands the folded flag to the widow, Bonnie Villa, and slowly salutes.
"It is beautiful and a great honor," says Bonnie Villa, Villa's wife of 13 years. "These grounds are absolutely fabulous."
Villa served in the Air Force for six years, working on refueling jets, stationed in Africa and Greenland, his widow says.
"He was very proud of being a service person. It is an honor to have this service for those who serve so proudly to keep this country safe and free."
After the service ends, a Navy honor guard stands at attention for the next funeral. Another three are scheduled this day.
Isles carefully places Villa's urn box into a golf cart and motors the 50 yards to the wall of vaults. Eventually, the cemetery will add another 4,200 vaults for urns and may even find a place for more casket burials.
Isles places the box inside the vault and replaces the heavy granite seal.
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It takes up to four months to get Bay Pines ready for Memorial Day, says Jason Dangel, a spokesman for the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center, which puts on the annual event.
Fertilizing, landscaping and other work starts about three months out, Dangel says. Things get really hectic in the 24 hours before. That's when the seating, stage equipment, tents, tables, portable toilets and other equipment are set up. The avenue of flags, a collection of more than 300 U.S. flags, are set up starting at 6 a.m. Monday to line the Bay Pines roadway.
The hour-long ceremony begins at 10 a.m.
For Gary Isles and his colleagues who care for the cemetery, every day is Memorial Day.
"It was my job to take care of the troops when I was in uniform. Now it is my job to continue taking care of them in death."
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.