A local Rye veteran has been finding peace at Greenwood Union Cemetery, The African American Cemetery and St. Mary’s Cemetery.
Hank Birdsall, a retired US Army Sergeant and educator who taught in the Port Chester schools, started going to Greenwood Cemetery 30 years ago, where his grandfather is buried. He found a section with veterans’ graves in disrepair.
“I started putting flags on the veterans’ graves,” said Birdsall. “As the years went by I started putting a flag on every marked grave, about 145 flags. Some of my students would come with me, just prior to Memorial Day. We’d come back for Veterans Day, because flags would fall or need replacing. And then The Town of Rye fixed this place up beautifully, and now every year before their big Memorial Day ceremony, we come in and make it more beautiful with the flags.”
One grave at Greenwood is of a veteran from the ship Monitor. There was a great Navy battle back in March 1862 called The Battle of Hampton Roads, between two Ironclads, the Union Monitor and the Confederate Merrimack, and he was there.
“I come here throughout the year. I find it very peaceful. I say some prayers, meditate, fix some flags in the ground, bring new flags,” said Birdsall. Around Memorial Day, the place is covered in new green grass and yellow buttercups. Wherever you are in this cemetery, whatever time of day, the light, the trees, it’s just so beautiful. This is our history. All these people. We are here to honor their lives. Right now as we walk through these rustling leaves, you hear it? It’s as if they are talking to us. I like to do things in Jesus’ name, nobody has to say anything. I just do it because it’s a good thing to do. Honestly when I climb over that rock wall, I always look around and say, ‘My God. I feel like I’ve just stepped in and out of Heaven.’”
When he was in the Army, Birdsall served in the 1st and 5th Special Forces Groups. In Vietnam he served in Project Sigma, running dangerous recon missions behind enemy lines. He and wife Isabelle taught in Port Chester schools for a combined five decades. “I’m still doing it despite being a three time cancer survivor, and having neuropathy in both feet and never ending lower back pain,” said Birdsall. “I have to Honor Our Veterans as long as I can walk and move around. Thank You Jesus.”