FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- Bobby Truitt’s white marble headstone is identical to more than 1,500 others at Fort Jackson National Cemetery, S.C.
But the life he lived after his service in the Korean War era sets him apart in the eyes of his widow and daughter.
“He was a very humble man, a loving husband, a great father,” said Margaret Truitt, who was Truitt’s wife for 37 years.
She traveled from Augusta with her daughter, Sonya, to Columbia this weekend to mark Memorial Day at her husband’s graveside. It’s a ritual that will be repeated by spouses and veterans across the country at 141 national cemeteries.
The practice of dedicating burial grounds for veterans and their spouses started in the Civil War with the establishment of 14 cemeteries for Union soldiers in 1862.
The system expanded into the current nationwide network of cemeteries, most of them maintained by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., is arguably the best-known national burial ground, but its signature rows of matching white marble headstones are not unique.
The same standards are used at all the national cemeteries, explains Gene Linxwiler, the director of the Fort Jackson cemetery.
Bobby Truitt’s headstone, for instance, is identical to its neighbors – 46 inches long, with 24 to 26 inches above ground. It’s six feet from the others to the side and eight feet from the headstone in front of it. The result is a crisp, uniform line of headstones in any direction — not unlike a military formation.
“We strive for perfection, and we get pretty close,” Linxwiler said.
Truitt died in 2010 from prostate cancer and complications from diabetes. His death at age 75 capped a full life as a Paine College professor and 25 years as a minister at Augusta’s Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church.
His widow described him as a deep thinker who loved Shakespeare and a duffer who drew inspiration for his sermons while playing golf. As a preacher’s wife, she misses him the most while getting dressed for church on Sunday mornings.
“He was my best friend,” said Truitt, dabbing at her eyes. “When you’re married that long, you get lonesome.”
Bobby Truitt never spoke of his military service; his wife’s only record is a framed honorable discharge from the Air Force in 1959. But when discussing arrangements, the funeral director suggested a burial at the national cemetery in Columbia.
The cemetery is comparatively new, having just opened for burials in 2009. It’s still a work in progress but it has enough future plots on 585 acres to serve veterans through the next century.
Truitt said she immediately fell in love with the tall, stately pines and rows of headstones. While it’s a little more than an hour away, Truitt uses the car ride to tell old stories about her husband to her daughter. Once she’s at the cemetery, Truitt finds comfort talking with other visiting families.
“You really feel welcome there,” she said.
Linxwiler said making families feel at peace is the goal at the cemetery. It’s evident in the flag lowered to half staff on funeral days, the carefully groomed Bermuda grass and little details such as raking over tire tracks in the dirt service roads.
“This is a national shrine,” he said. While the grounds cover 585 acres, “our service starts at the grave site.”