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Second Chances And The Cemetery

November 30, 2012, 10:20 PM by Derek Olson

Second Chances And The Cemetery
STURGIS, SD -

The transition from military to civilian life can be a tough one.  Unfortunately, many who have served end up living on the streets.

But a new program is giving veterans who struggle with or are at risk of homelessness a chance to turn their lives around.

For more than a century, the Black Hills National Cemetery has been the final resting place for those who have served.

"Everything here, it's about the veteran.  He's resting here or she's resting here and we will take care of this person forever," veteran David Kurttila said.

It's an honor that's earned by standing up to defend our country, which is something that Kurttila of Hot Springs understands well.

In his two-decades with the Army and Army National Guard, Kurttila served in Operation Desert Storm before two-tours in Iraq. Kurtilla is one of thousands of veterans who struggled after returning home and faced homelessness.

"You see a lot of stuff that a civilian person will never see.  And you know, the constant state of alert, 24/7, how do you shut that off?  We're home now; how do we turn that button off?" Kurttila said.

Navy veteran Brian Taylor of Sturgis never saw combat but had trouble holding down a job after an injury ended his military career.

"Since then, I'm just going from job to job, didn't really have any direction," Taylor said.

There are more than 24,000 veterans and their family members buried at the Black Hills National Cemetery.  But for the six members of the caretaker apprenticeship program, the cemetery has given them a new lease on life.

"I love it.  It's one of the greatest jobs that I've had in my life so far," Taylor said.

The six apprentices are the newest full-time employees at the cemetery, joining a staff comprised entirely of veterans.  It's a good job and valuable training.

"It saved my life.  I'm able to move now into a better place because I can afford to do that now," Kurttila said.

"Our primary goal is to become a caretaker.  Right now we're in the apprenticeship program learning how to become a caretaker, all the aspects of it," Taylor said.

After finishing an intense one-week training course in October, the apprentices are learning to apply their new skills.  After one-year of work, the men will be certified to work in any cemetery across the country.

But that's not all.

"We're still federal employees, so we have opportunities to go to any other federal employment if there's an opening," Taylor said.

It's part of the Homeless Veteran Supported Employment Program, one of numerous programs the VA has set up to help veterans with the transition.

"He said, 'well, we have this opportunity.  Do you want to take advantage of it?' And he kind of explained what was going on and I said, 'that sounds like a really good deal,'" Kurttila said.

"This is like a Godsend, you know?  It opened up my whole life," Taylor said.

Now, the men hope that this and other VA programs can help more wayward veterans.

"I mean, it's great.  I love it.  I hope I can stay here, or if not, go somewhere else and carry it on," Taylor said.

"Hey man, just get on the phone and do this.  They'll help you and they refuse to let you fail," Kurttila said.

The Black Hills National Cemetery is one of five across the country that recently added Cemetery Caretaker Apprentices to their staffs.  The new apprentices are on a one-year probationary period and receive the same benefits as other federal employees.

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