Bartlett landscape entrepreneur works to renew, beautify Arlington National Cemetery

This worker is among the 400-plus diligent volunteers laboring in the heat during the annual Arlington National Cemetery Renewal and Remembrance event. Here, he is spreading crushed limestone for proper pH balance and healthy plant growth. Photo courtesy of NALP/Philippe Nobile Photography,
Kenny Crenshaw stops for a photo after chatting with the keynote speaker at the start of a busy day at Arlington National Cemetery. Photo by retired Lt. Col. Priscilla E. Quackenbush.

Herbi-Systems President Kenny Crenshaw made his 15th anniversary trip to Arlington National Cemetery July 16 for the 22nd annual National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP) Renewal and Remembrance project.

He was focused on directing the nationwide volunteer effort in grounds maintenance and beautification, a familiar journey with expected work schedule routines. But out of the norm, this year’s opening ceremony was focused on the contribution of women in the U. S. Armed Forces and held for the first time at The Women in Military Service for America (WIMSA) Memorial, serving as a gateway to the cemetery.

As the 4.2-acre ceremonial entrance to Arlington, The Women’s Memorial is the only major national memorial honoring all servicewomen throughout history. The hemicycle wall with its neoclassical and modern arches was built in 1932 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

In the 1980s, U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught asked Congress to construct a building behind the wall to honor women in the military. After years of lobbying and fundraising efforts with support from veteran organizations, dedication of the new memorial became a reality in 1997. The 33,000 sq. ft. structure today houses two terrace levels, an upper space with reflecting pool and Court of Valor, and a lower terrace of educational exhibits that include military histories and individual stories of registered women as well as a Hall of Honor.

With The Women’s Memorial as the architectural centerpiece, it seemed only fitting that retired Lt. Col. Priscilla E. Quackenbush, a 25-year veteran of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, brought the keynote address. The change in program and venue served as a reminder of why Crenshaw devotes time and energy each year to supervise labor assignments.

Retired Lt. Col. Priscilla E. Quackenbush

“Her message hit home as it is easy to get caught up in managing teams and mapping key grounds area,” Crenshaw said. “The ‘what’ is important, but the ‘why’ is all important.”

Historically, women have served in all of our nation’s conflicts; primarily in support roles. They often followed their husbands and served in the encampments as cooks, seamstresses and nurses, Quackenbush said. During the American Revolutionary War, women disguised themselves as men to fight as equals, according to professionals at The Women’s Memorial organization.

Women did not officially serve until the Spanish-American War. Arlington National Cemetery has a dedicated space for nurses in Section 21, where departed souls who served in the Spanish-American War, WWI and WWII are laid to rest.

In her role as a nursing supervisor at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Quackenbush worked with the Patient Administration section to streamline procedures for meeting air evacuation flights taking the wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan. The planes arrived several times each week, landing at Andrews Air Force Base (now called Joint Base Andrews). Quackenbush often helped to move the wounded onto the ambulance bus for the 30-mile trip from Andrews to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

Quackenbush said that soldiers who return home often ask for two things even before they are moved off the plane: To call their mothers and to be placed on the transport vehicle next to a window so that they can see a tree.

“Soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan live in an incredibly stressful environment, beyond the obvious dangers of a combat zone,” she said. “They are surrounded by the smell of diesel fuel, the noise of heavy equipment, aircraft and generators, and an unforgiving, brown, dust-covered landscape. Imagine an abyss without rest for the mind or the senses.”

She continued, “An orderly green space is a hallmark of America. It is a healing reminder to the wounded that they are safe, at home, and that we’ve got their backs. You’re not home until you see the trees.”

While at Arlington, Quackenbush visited Section 60 in the southeastern section of the cemetery, across the Potomac River from D.C. That is where veterans killed in action from several historic wars, including Afghanistan and Iraq, are buried.

Here lies one of Lt. Col. Priscilla Quackenbush’s comrades who served with her in the same unit. Following a tradition, she left a dime on the gravestone in remembrance and respect during Arlington National Cemetery’s 2018 Renewal and Remembrance Day. Photo by Quackenbush.

She described the tradition of placing a small stone or coin on a gravestone. By some accounts, a pebble is left to show that someone visited, she said. A penny can be a message to the family that a friend came by. A nickel can indicate that the visitor trained with the veteran. A dime can mean that both served together in the same unit. And a quarter can mean that the visitor was present at the end of the departed’s life.

Lt. Col. Quackenbush left a coin on four gravestones that day: An acquaintance, a colleague, a friend and a patient.

“Only the person leaving the coin or pebble has the right to decide what the sentiment means,” she said. “The practice is one of respect, connection, memory and inclusion. The meaning of the stone or coins is open to wide interpretation. It is all about remembering.”

Crenshaw said he was moved by the story about placing stones or coins and also about how the healing capacity of green spaces connects the landscaping industry with her mission.

Quackenbush lauded NALP and the hundreds of volunteers who labored in the heat to pay tribute with sweat and tears. Smaller helping hands also participated, representing the next generation of volunteers, she said. The Children’s Program involved some 50 little ones this year, and one of the educational activities included the planting of annuals around the USS Maine Mast monument.

“The vibrant beauty of a floral installation brings the serenity of color and peace to families of the fallen, friends and visitors,” she said. “Every service member buried here lies in eternal rest. But the living green, which generates oxygen and creates the whisper of the wind, are all reminders that life and hope continue.”

From left are best friends Kenny Crenshaw, president of Herbi-Systems Inc. in Bartlett, and Don Zerby, president of Ecolawn Inc. in Ohio, taking a quick break from the heat. Both manage volunteer work schedules at Arlington National Cemetery. Photo courtesy of Don Zerby.

Crenshaw left the ceremony with a renewed zeal for the work that he does and is committed to continuing his journey in honor of all who served, including his Uncle Ken Kruger, a former U.S. Navy carrier pilot, along with his Aunt Frances, both of whom are buried at Arlington.

This year, Crenshaw again took on duties at both cemeteries, Arlington National Cemetery and the U.S. National Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery. The latter added to his project list from 2017. His 300 volunteers applied 44 tons of lime to 102 acres for both cemeteries as well as aeration to 93 acres and two tons of phosphorous to 46 acres at Arlington alone. Teams represented by other companies handled irrigation and tree cabling.

In total, some 400-plus experts in the landscape industry volunteered during Arlington’s 2018 Renewal and Remembrance event, including platinum sponsors John Deere, Caterpillar and New Holland. Gold sponsor Imerys donated the lime, and Herbi-Systems supplier, Pat Woods of Woods Farm Supply in Byhalia, Miss., donated the phosphorus.

“Arlington gives us a wish list each year for grounds work,” Crenshaw said.

Volunteers usually treat more than 200 acres of the 600-plus acre cemetery. The teams also treat 15 acres at Soldiers. Volunteers focus on jobs that are too big for cemetery staff but too small to contract out to firms, according to Crenshaw.

“It takes us four hours to do what would otherwise take several months and thousands of dollars to accomplish through traditional procurement procedures,” he said.

Volunteers from across the U.S. come to Arlington National Cemetery each year to volunteer for grounds maintenance and beautification. Photo courtesy of NALP/Philippe Nobile Photography.

Arlington National Cemetery was recently awarded Level III Arboretum accreditation for its botanical collection. There are only 24 renowned institutions worldwide that maintain this prestigious accreditation and only two other cemeteries – Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass., and Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Back in the Mid-South, Crenshaw also remains involved with Big Creek Cemetery at 6839 Big Creek Church Road in Millington. The cemetery was established in May 1886 and sits on 6.55 acres. It has about 650 graves going back to the mid-1800s, including the Crenshaw family and many other early settlers in the area. The cemetery was family owned in its earliest days.

Crenshaw serves on the board of directors of Big Creek Cemetery Association. Big Creek Cemetery’s Homecoming event, where families gather to share memories, is set for Oct. 14.

For more information on The Women’s Memorial, visit womensmemorial.org. To learn more about Arlington National Cemetery, visit arlingtoncemetery.mil. For more information on NALP, visit landscapeprofessionals.org. To contact Bartlett-based Herbi-Systems Inc., call (901) 382-5296 or visit herbi-systems.com; also follow the company at Facebook.com/herbisystemsinc.

Arlington National Cemetery remains a peaceful and well-kept cemetery. Photo courtesy of NALP/Philippe Nobile Photography.