Charles B. Smith Jr.

Charles B. Smith Jr.



I work at the largest military cemetery in Rhode Island, home to more than 40,000 memorials across 325 acres of land. My team and I are responsible for preparing gravesites for veteran burials on 125 of those acres. We average five burials per day.

I represent the Local 904 for AFSCME Council 94, one of the oldest labor unions in Rhode Island. I've only been at this cemetery for four years, but I've thrown my heart and soul into keeping these grounds pristine to pay due respect to those who served. I was humbled when I won the AFSCME "Never Quit Award" for my cemetery work, which honors union members who go the extra mile to support the community.

This part of the United States has a strong Native American heritage, and I'm a proud member of the Seaconke Wampanoag people. One day when I was at the cemetery, I noticed that 28 different groups of veterans were honored with a monument or stone, but no such tribute existed to recognize the many Native American men and women from Rhode Island who served in the U.S. Armed Services.

Right then and there, it became my mission to oversee the creation of a long-overdue intertribal monument at the cemetery.

While still doing my cemetery job full-time, I worked off-hours and weekends to form a project committee and serve as chair. Loren Spears, curator of a museum in town and two-term councilwoman for the Narragansett Nation, volunteered to serve as co-chair. The rest of the committee included one representative from each of the 12 local tribes.

Initial work involved genealogical research and talking to families in the area to determine which veterans memorialized in the cemetery belong to one of the tribes. I even walked all 40,000 markers in my Red Wings — a distance totaling several miles — to make sure no one was overlooked. We ultimately identified 122 brave and patriotic souls, my own father among them, who served in the Navy during World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

I am pleased to report that on July 12, 2023, five years after the committee's formation with more than $89,000 raised, the monument's groundbreaking ceremony was held. In fact, the first donation made years ago was the money I received for my Never Quit Award. That "never quit" attitude certainly came in handy. From continuous reporting to local, state and tribal officials at every step to political pressures and conflicts over fund allocation, nothing about this project was easy. But in the end, we did it.

I've been in the trades for 25 years and hold five trade certifications. I have my associate degree in HVAC, my commercial driver's license, and I learned how to build houses from the ground up. I'm also certified to run vessels for commercial and residential boilers. When I started at the cemetery, I got certified to operate a backhoe.

I've worn my Red Wings throughout my career for protection on the job, which has had me working in all types of New England weather — everything from summer heat and rain to sleet, snow and below-zero temperatures. And my Red Wings are so comfortable I wear them pretty much everywhere else, too. They actually look quite good when you have to dress up for something.

I believe all of my work in the trades has prepared me in some way to lead the development of this long-overdue memorial for my people. The departed indigenous veterans from the area will soon get the recognition they deserve, with each of their names inscribed for the ages in stone. I couldn't feel prouder.


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