CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – The Cape Canaveral National Cemetery in Brevard County is the final resting place for thousands of local veterans. Rows of headstones line the rolling hills. American flags flutter in the ocean breeze.
And one group of ladies make it their mission to attend every service.
Debra Griffin, Chairwoman of the Cape Canaveral Ladies, said volunteers from the organization have attended more than 7,000 services since the cemetery opened in 2016.
“The services vary from full honors with an honor guard and dozens of attendees to what we call a D.N.A. or direct no one attending,” Griffin said, referring to services for veterans who, for whatever reason, have no one attending their internments. “Before COVID-19 we had two volunteers a day.”
For the last year and a half, COVID restrictions have limited the volunteers to only attending D.N.A. funerals. Griffin says it’s an honor to be there and show respect.
“Standing out here when no one else is able to attend, there’s no one to remember them, think about their service or impact on the world. It’s especially poignant to be able to say a few final words and say thank you as they go to their final rest.”
The Cape Canaveral Ladies is inspired by the Arlington Ladies. A volunteer group at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Founder, Cozette Merritt, was approached by one of the Arlington volunteers after her husband’s funeral. The volunteer offered her condolences and presented a sympathy card to recognize her husband’s service. The act left a lasting impression.
Merritt traveled back to her home in Florida where the Cape Canaveral National Cemetery was about to be dedicated. She approached the director with the idea to do the same here. The volunteer program was born.
“One force, one fight,” Griffin said. “It doesn’t matter what service you come from or how long you served. That’s a brother and sisterhood that never changes.”
Retired, Griffin served in the Army for 32 years. She says she comes from a military family and this is her way to continue working with veterans and their families.
“All the sacrifices families make for service members is huge. I don’t think a lot of people understand the impact that it has on families. So our opportunity here is to not only honor the veteran as they are being laid to rest but to honor the families and thank them for their service and commitment as well.”
Cape Canaveral National Cemetery director, Kevin Ridgeway said the volunteers play an important role.
“They’re a very dedicated group,” Ridgeway said. “It’s truly their heart that they give. They serve as a silent witness as a member of the community and the veteran community that they’re not alone. They do so with honor and dignity and respect.”
Dana Tolbert of Titusville volunteers once a month. Tolbert also comes from a military family. Her dad was in the Army, her daughter is a captain in the Air Force and her mother is buried at Cape Canaveral National Cemetery.
Tolbert said she says a silent prayer and thanks them for their service.
“It’s so quiet and peaceful,” Tolbert said. “It’s a different kind of emotion because you’re the only one there.”
Griffin said The Cape Canaveral Ladies are looking for more volunteers. She says volunteers work one day a month and don’t need to have any military affiliation. For more information visit their website.