Billy Murphy couldn't have known when he took the helm at Florida National Cemetery that he would spend so much time in Section 402.
It's in that section — about 5 acres of gently sloping land in the heart of the cemetery in Sumter County — where the active-duty casualties are laid to rest.
Murphy took over as director of operations for Florida National, Bay Pines National in St. Petersburg and St. Augustine National cemeteries in July 2001. Not long after, flag-draped caskets of U.S. service members began to return from the Middle East.
Murphy vowed to attend as many services for active-duty members as he could.
Now, after 31 years in the National Cemetery Administration, eight of them leading the country's second-busiest cemetery, Murphy is retiring at age 59. Friday was his last day.
Although his own son, a Marine, returned safely from a year in Iraq, Murphy says he takes with him into retirement the pain of dozens of families whose loved ones did not. That is part of the job, he says.
"You don't belong in this business if it doesn't hurt you," he said.
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A farm boy from southern Oregon, Murphy came to the job acquainted with the sacrifices of service. His father was an Army veteran of World War II. His uncle was taken prisoner during the Korean War and still is missing in action.
Murphy served in the Army from 1968 to 1971. He was stationed in Germany.
Upon his honorable discharge, he got some advice from his father, a lumber mill worker, who encouraged him to accept a job as a switchboard operator at the VA Medical Center in Roseburg, Ore. Murphy took the job, though he had misgivings.
"You take that job," Murphy recalls his father saying, "because one of these days you're going to go far in the VA, and you need to get your foot in the door."
By 1978, Murphy was a director trainee for the National Cemetery Administration under the tutelage of Jack Metzler at Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno, Calif. Metzler, now director of Arlington National Cemetery, became a mentor and friend.
"He was a very energetic go-getter," Metzler said. "I could see right off the top he was going to go far in his career."
After a year as director at Arkansas National Cemetery, Murphy spent 14 years in the top post at Willamette National Cemetery in Portland, Ore., then in 1998 moved to open the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery near Chicago.
He and his family loved Chicago, but the winters were "brutal," he said. When the Florida job opened, he jumped.
Three months later, as he watched the events of Sept. 11, 2001, he remembers being angry.
"Once I got over that, I realized it would affect us as an operation," he said.
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At Bay Pines, little space remains for casket burials. Roughly 98 percent of the 1,200 services there last year were for cremated remains, Murphy said.
Tiny St. Augustine, at about 1 1/2 acres, has been closed to new interments for more than two decades.
But Florida National, nestled among the oaks and pines of the Withlacoochee State Forest near the Hernando-Sumter county line, is the second-most-active national cemetery in the country, behind Riverside National in California.
In Murphy's first year, burials at Florida National surpassed 5,000. Last year, the number was 7,069, he said. The cemetery recently completed a $21 million expansion that added 28,000 grave sites.
Most services are for World War II veterans, many others for Korean War vets.
But since 2001, about 50 casualties from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been laid to rest there.
Murphy selected Section 402 for active-duty services because it's a short walk to the cemetery's large ceremonial area, which can accommodate the large crowds of mourners the services often draw.
Murphy says he has attended about 90 percent of those services. While all were difficult, those during 2006 were especially tough.
His son, Sgt. Craig Murphy, served a tour as a prison guard in Iraq that year. The facility in Ramadi often came under enemy shelling.
"During every one of those services, I thought of my son," he said.
Coming closer to loss bolstered his resolve, he said.
"We want to make sure we're here for the families, that we give them first-class service and do whatever we can to comfort them. I think we've done a great job at that."
Replacing Murphy will be Kurt Rotar, currently the director of South Florida National Cemetery.
Murphy plans to stay in Florida awhile, but has hopes of becoming a snowbird. He looks forward to traveling and has one trip already in mind.
"I've never attended a service in Arlington National Cemetery," he said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.