Pamela Hengen spends a lot of time lost in thought at the Fort Leonard Wood Missouri Veterans Cemetery. There, she stands near the grave of her only child, Matthew, who was killed in Iraq during June 2011.
Not much has felt right in Pamela Hengen's world since then. The former professor now chokes on her own voice in public. Life as she once knew it — with her Matthew — is no longer there, and she's left to navigate alone.
But, being next to her son's grave — nestled in a small sea of military graves and surrounded by tall evergreens — is the exception. That is where she just feels right. Not necessarily better or worse, just right.
A "right" fit
Pfc. Matthew England always wanted to go to Fort Leonard Wood. Even as a child gowing up in Gainsville, Mo., a little more than 100 miles away from the base, he was fascinated by the military.
In seventh grade, Matthew won an essay contest about why he wanted to be in the Army. It was his dream to fly military aircraft.
But then, Matthew ran out of time. At just 22 years old, he was killed in action in An Najah province, Iraq, when enemy forces attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device.
Amidst her grief, Pamela had a decision to make: Where should Matthew be laid to rest? Deciding on a burial in Missouri was natural. It's home. Which cemetery was another question. After checking out some other options, Pamela decided that the Missouri Veterans Cemetery at Fort Leonard Wood was a perfect fit – both for Matthew and for herself.
Matthew is currently the only soldier who was killed in action during modern warfare laid to rest at Fort Leonard Wood.
"For me, it's the people that make a place special," she said. "And the people there just made me feel comfortable."
Even while mourning her son, Pamela gained a new family of sorts.
"Gen. Watson, who was the general at the time, told me about the military family — how they always support each other and are there for each other," Pamela said. "He actually made me feel like everyone in the military is a part of my family, and I still feel like that."
Pamela found that same kind of family support and respect from the folks working at the young FLW Veterans Cemetery, which was founded in August 2010. In fact, several of the employees who work at the cemetery have some sort of a military background.
And in the hundreds of hours she has spent next to her son's grave, she's gotten to know the people who operate the memorial grounds pretty well.
Page 2 of 3 - Pamela remembers planning Matthew's burial and speaking with Stacy Wilson, the senior office support assistant whose friendly smile and respect won her over in the beginning.
"Stacey is just one of those people who is always friendly," Pamela said. "I don't know how she does it. She is one of the reasons why I picked this place."
And the groundsmen make Pamela laugh, helping her feel natural, even when she's in the middle of a cemetery.
"All the grounds guys are hilarious," she said. "It took them a while to realize I have a since a humor, but now we joke with each other a lot. They're great."
Those groundsman consider their work just another way of serving their country, said Rick Sallee, the maintenance supervisor at the cemetery, who served many years in the Marines.
"When it comes to respect, honor, dignity, that's what we're all about," Sallee said. "We are here for the veterans. It's all for the veterans and their families."
With that extra incentive, groundsmen don't complain while they work more hours than most.
"I can't speak highly enough for the guys on the ground. They work hard at what they do," Sallee said. "They feel obligated and honored to have the job. They like what they are doing. We have to come in on weekends, holidays, extra hours and they are always willing to stay longer."
They keep the 25 developed acres of the cemetery looking fresh and polished. The grass remains a bright shade of green — even in the middle of drought — all because the groundsmen are dedicated to giving the veterans what they deserve.
In addition to the sites of memorial, the groundsmen also tend to a committal shelter, administrative building, maintenance area, a fountain, paved walkways, one columbarium wall and eight casketted gardens with benches for rest and meditation -- all of it on top of a hill located off Highway H, and surrounded by tall pine trees and open sky.
"It's peaceful," said Pamela.
Forming of the Assistance Association
Pamela wanted to do something to give back to the veterans, their families and to the cemetery.
And she wasn't alone.
Virgie Mahen, a Vietnam-age veteran, who buried her husband, Michael Mahen, also a Vietnam veteran, in 2011, felt the same need to contribute to the cemetery.
"I saw firsthand what dignity and respect was offered for veterans at this place and that really got to me," Virgie said. "I see it as a major resource for this community."
Because the cemetery is owned by the government, it cannot accept donations — but there is a small loophole: assistance associations can serve as the middle man and can accept donations from people wanting to contribute to cemetery enhancements.
Page 3 of 3 - In 2012, Pamela got together with Virgie and others who were passionate about the cemetery and decided it was time for them to do something for the cemetery instead of the cemetery doing something for them. So they formed the FLW Military Cemetary Assistance Association. Pamela is the current president, Virgie the vice president.
Besides helping the cemetery, Pamela said the work also gives her a renewed sense of purpose.
"Once you're a mom you're always a mom. Now, all I can do for Matthew are things for him and for his memory," she said.
"Anything I can do with the Association or anything on the Fort that benefits him in some way, that is a way to honor all of them. Like a living tribute."
Pamela said that it comes down to still being a part of that military family, and still wanting to serve those who gave up so much for their country.
"All of our veterans gave a part of their life to our country. They took an oath and the least we can do is to do anything we can to honor and remember them," Pamela said.