Only the dead have seen the end of war.
What Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana wrote in 1922, former U.S. Army Sgt. Kerry Rock learned in 2003.
Rock and his wife, Colleen, will head out Saturday morning and from 8 a.m. to noon, they’ll scrub the scrunge from veterans’ tombstones in Charlottesville’s Oakwood Cemetery. This year they’ll be joined by friends, city firefighters and folks from the Chris Long Foundation.
Armed with cleaning supplies donated by Hathaway Paper, Packaging and Janitorial, they will shine the resting places of those who served and honor their service.
Anyone interested in joining the effort can register at dogoodcville.org.
“We’re going to hit every veteran’s gravesite in Oakwood,” Rock said. “We’ve established a marking system and we’ll tag every site with a surveyor’s flag so when we come the next morning we can put everybody in sections and have a flow worked out.”
The effort is a growing community ritual that sprouted from an act of remembrance and a sense of duty.
“It started about five years ago when I woke on Memorial Day morning,” Rock recalled. “I had a barbecue planned and all the basic stuff for the day, but I rolled over to [my wife] and said, ‘I just gotta go do something.’ She said to go.”
So he went.
“I grabbed my rucksack and my body armor and pulled the flag off my house and did about a six-mile ruck march, just thinking about my friends that I’d lost, and it took me across Oakwood Cemetery,” Rock remembered. “I carried an extra two-liter bottle of water and an extra shirt in my ruck, and I saw these graves just completely covered in mildew and moss. I saw a veteran’s stone and I just wet it down and wiped it down as best I could and I promised that I’d be back next year.”
He kept his promise. Colleen Rock joined him, as did former Virginia and NFL star and philanthropist Chris Long. Together they scrubbed the stones out of respect. The next year, it grew to include more friends, fellow veterans, the Chris Long Foundation and community members.
This year the Chris Long Foundation is co-hosting the event with the Rocks’ own Do Good Cville campaign.
“It just keeps growing. This year our goal is to get the entire graveyard done,” Rock said. “There are roughly 400 gravestones to cover. With the hard work we put in over the last four years, we’ve gotten all the hard stuff so we won’t have to scrub a quarter-inch of crud off. We’ve got the same stuff they use in military cemeteries to clean the headstones so they’ll really shine.”
For Rock, the scrubbing is a show of respect not just for the veterans he doesn’t know but for those friends with whom he served and those whom he lost.
Rock served in the U.S. Army’s 179th Airborne Combat Brigade, a rapid-response, front-line paratroop unit stationed in Italy and training to be the spear tip in defense of Europe. In 2003, the brigade and Rock were sent to Iraq as the war began and he joined 954 fellow soldiers in a March 26 combat parachute jump from a C-17 Globemaster III cargo aircraft onto Bashur Airfield in northern Iraq.
A few days later, the brigade went toward Kirkuk to gain control of Iraqi oil fields and airfields, battling infantry, insurgents and Republican Guards. After a year in the fight, the brigade returned to Italy. Rock was later stationed in Fort Carson, Colorado, before he left the military.
The military, however, never left him. He still has the memories of close friends, like S/Sgt. Michael E. Yashinski, 24, who was killed on Christmas Eve 2003 in Kirkuk when he was accidentally electrocuted while running communication wire.
He remembers friend S/Sgt. Edwardo Loredo, 34, who re-enlisted after Iraq and was killed when insurgents attacked his foot patrol with an improvised explosive device on June 24, 2010, in Jelewar, Afghanistan.
He remembers a close friend’s son, Zachary Cuddeback, 21, who was one of two Air Force airmen killed in 2011 when a terrorist boarded the bus he was driving and shot and killed Cuddeback and Nicholas J. Alden, 25, under the impression the two were headed to Afghanistan.
They were not.
“I spent time with them and knew them and loved them and I remember them and I try to keep them going. You never let them die. You never forget them. And Memorial Day is a day that is specifically meant to honor them,” Rock said. “You just stop what you’re doing and just take five seconds, take five minutes and do something to stop your world and remember.”
Rock has been giving back a lot, and not just to fellow veterans. He’s worked for the Sexual Assault Resource Agency, the Ishan Gala Foundation and The Haven. With Colleen, he’s raised awareness and money and created the area’s largest coat drive to provide a little warmth to those out in the cold.
He raised money as part of Long’s Waterboys organization, which helps to provide wells for villages in Africa, and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in 2018 with the group. That’s when he met Long.
“There I was, surrounded by a bunch of amazing guys who were doing a lot for people and I thought that I could be doing so much more with my life,” Rock recalled. “So my wife and I would randomly do good things. We did a winter wear drive and helped Champion Brewery raise a coat drive that was hosted at Sprint Pavilion last year.”
Originally, it was an individual effort by the couple. Then it became the Do Good Cville project.
“People were like, ‘why are you doing this?’ and we were like, ‘because we can.’ But we ran into a wall when we went out to ask for donations because the question was always who to make the check out to. So we gave it a name.”
Do Good Cville has a simple goal.
“Our mission is, just find people who need help and help them,” he said.
They don’t seek support from local government because of rules and hoops that take time away from the effort.
“How long would it take if I had to get permission to do what we’ve done for The Haven? We just went to businesses and talked them up about what’s happening there and we got a $10,000 donation to hand to them.”
Rock said their continued efforts, and the fact that the money goes to where they say it will go, has won them a good reputation.
“[The businesses] said, ‘we know you’re going to do right for us.’ So we were able to give The Haven $10,000 to fund three programs,” he said. “If I had to get permission to do that stuff, it never would have got done. It’s the airborne guy in me saying, ‘—— it, I’m just going to fix this.’”
It’s also the airborne guy in him saying both goodbye and hello to his comrades who will lead Saturday’s tombstone scrubbing.
“You don’t have to remember their deaths, remember their lives. Remember something good about them. Keep them alive in your mind. Keep their sacrifice in your life. Do it to remember them,” he said. “Only the dead know the end of war. Someone smarter than me came up with that, but it’s true.”