About 30 times a day, Drayton Denson answers the phone at a call center in south St. Louis County that helps U.S. military veterans secure a grateful nation’s perpetual thank you: free burial, with honors, in a national cemetery.
Denson is one of about 80 Veterans Administration employees who work at the National Cemetery Scheduling Office on Lemay Ferry Road. They schedule burial times for the VA’s 136 national cemeteries that are located in 40 states and Puerto Rico.
Most of the time, the calls are from funeral homes. But, sometimes, the caller is a grieving family member or a friend of a veteran who just died. They might not have the veteran's military records and don't know how to proceed. For them, Denson tries to be a friendly voice on a very bad day.
“I served 23 years active duty and represented this great country, but there’s more for me to do,’’ said Denson, an Air Force veteran. “And right now, it’s here at the scheduling office to make sure that the veterans get the best care to get that burial. And to let them know that, hey, we can get through this together.”
On a recent Wednesday morning, Denson assisted a woman calling from New Jersey. As he searched the VA database, Denson asked the caller how she was doing.
“I’m so sorry to hear that,’’ Denson told her. “It gets better, though.’’
Denson, 46, said he can relate to callers because he was once in their shoes. His father, an Army veteran, died in 2008 just before Denson was deployed to Afghanistan. While at the funeral home, he called the National Cemetery Scheduling Office to find out about his father’s burial benefits.
“I broke down in tears,’’ he said. “But the person said, ‘It’s gonna be all right. We’re going to get through this.’ That stuck with me.”
Denson’s last posting was to Scott Air Force Base. After retiring, he decided to stay in the St. Louis area and applied to work at the scheduling office. During the interview, he recognized the voice of his interviewer as the scheduler who had helped him years before.
'My father passed away last night. And I don’t know what to do.'
The scheduling agents work in cubicles, lined up in rows, on the second floor of a small brick office building. Last year, they answered 300,000 calls and scheduled more than 135,000 burials.
The call center is open seven days a week, except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Staff members handle about 1,000 calls a day from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., working staggered shifts so they can serve both the East and West coasts.
The VA’s National Cemetery Administration opened the call center in 2007 to centralize the scheduling process for the burials of veterans, their spouses and dependent children. The center also assists veterans who want to establish pre-need burial eligibility.
On May 3, staffers packed into a small conference room to celebrate a $1 million upgrade of technology and staffing.
In years past, callers might have waited two hours to speak to an agent, especially on Mondays, the office’s busiest day, said Ginger Wilson, director of the scheduling office. Now, the average hold time is 5 minutes.
Agents must be prepared to serve funeral home professionals who know the procedure — as well as people who have no idea where to turn, she said.
“Sometimes, they just Google and they come across our phone number,” Wilson said. “And they call us and sometimes, the call starts off with, ‘My father passed away last night. And I don’t know what to do.’”
Those are the calls that leave a lasting impression, said Priscilla McDowell, who has worked at the center for two years.
“One of the recent calls that I had was a wife laying her husband to rest. And he was a Vietnam veteran,’’ McDowell said. “When he came home, he burned everything. He burned his clothes. He burned all of his documents. So she had nothing to go by.”
Using the veteran’s Social Security number and date of birth, McDowell located his records and confirmed that he was eligible for burial in a national cemetery.
“To all of my veterans out there, we will be here for you,’’ she said. “Last call ... Last honor.''
'Memorial Day is every day'
The job isn’t right for everyone, said Greta Hamilton, assistant director of the call center.
“You have to have a certain compassion and empathy to do it, because you’re dealing with something that is challenging — death,” she said. “When you’re talking to family members, in particular, it’s crucial that you handle them in a certain way, because this is one of the worst days of their lives.”
Good training is important, but people can’t be taught empathy, Hamilton said.
About 70 percent of the scheduling agents are veterans, who tend to appreciate what other veterans are going through, said Hamilton, who served 20 years in the Air Force.
Before joining the scheduling office, Hamilton worked at several national cemeteries. She said that experience helps her explain to the staff the importance of getting everything right.
“One of my mentors used to tell people that Memorial Day is every day in the cemetery,” she said.
Sherry Harman has worked at the call center for seven years. Even though it’s a behind-the-scenes job, she is proud to help veterans get the dignified burial they deserve — whether it’s at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, which is just 5 miles from the scheduling office, or at a national cemetery hundreds of miles away.
“As long as I’ve been working here, I’ve always understood that the veteran may die in his physical body,’’ she said. “But as long as he’s interred at the national cemetery, his name will always be spoken. You never die ‘til your name is no longer said.’’
Follow Mary Delach Leonard on Twitter: @marydleonard
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