The quiet hung over the Southern Maine Veterans Memorial Cemetery like a silent prayer. The American flag, high atop a 100-foot pole, barely moved in the soft spring breeze. The headstones stood in perfect military precision, just like the veterans beneath them once did.

“It’s an amazing place, isn’t it?” Christine Pratt said. “When I walk around at lunch and I see the people that I helped … it’s nice.”

By definition, veterans cemeteries are normally reserved for veterans. Their spouses can join them and, in some cases, so can their children.

But beyond that, only in the rarest of cases can a civilian can be laid to rest on these hallowed grounds.

Pratt, when her time comes, could well be one of those cases.

“Many times in life, people who do all the work don’t get credit,” Rep. John Tuttle, D-Sanford, said in a telephone interview. “If it hadn’t been for Christine, the cemetery wouldn’t have gone in there.”

Tuttle, a veteran lawmaker who’s closing in on 30 years combined in the Maine House and Senate, is sponsoring a bill this session titled “An Act To Allow Christine Pratt To Be Buried at the Southern Maine Veterans Cemetery.”

Why Pratt? Two reasons.

First, as Tuttle and others noted on Monday when the bill was heard by the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, it was Pratt who found the 88 acres of donated land – 58 from the nearby Riverside Cemetery and 30 from the city of Sanford – that comprise the 11-year-old cemetery.

Second, as an office administrator for the Maine Bureau of Veterans’ Services in Sanford’s village of Springvale, Pratt has spent the last 22 years helping veterans with problems large and small, from connecting them with the benefits they’ve earned to lending a sympathetic ear as they grapple with echoes of wars gone by.

The cemetery’s story dates back two decades to a time when Maine was fast running out of burial space dedicated to veterans. The old burial ground at Togus was full and while new ones were taking shape in Augusta and Caribou, southern Maine had no cemetery and no land on which to build one.

Frank Soares, who served back then as director of Maine’s Bureau of Veterans’ Services, said in written testimony to the committee last week that he was in a real bind: The bureau had federal funds to build a southern Maine cemetery, but the money came with a fast-approaching deadline to start construction. What he needed was a location.

“I was genuinely concerned the bureau would lose the funds promised for the area,” Soares recalled. “In a nutshell, I had run out of ideas.”

Around the same time, during a routine visit to the bureau’s branch office in Springvale, Soares shared his angst with the office staff.

“Christine Pratt, always positive and enthusiastic, asked if she could try and find something,” Soares said. “I encouraged her to do so. Literally within days, she had names and locations for possible cemeteries.”

One of those sites was perfect. Bequeathed long ago by a local citizen to the Riverside Cemetery, it never fit into that facility’s expansion plans.

Enter John Black, a local funeral director who at the time served as president of Riverside’s board of trustees. Pratt had long been Black’s  “go-to” person for all things military, so when he heard the state was looking for land on which to build a cemetery, he knew whom to call.

“Christine was very excited at the prospect and took it from there,” Black recalled in another letter submitted to the committee. “Any honor you are considering for her involving that facility, in my opinion, would be most appropriate.”

The cemetery opened in 2010. Since then, more than 1,200 committal services have been performed – all thanks to one woman with a knack for getting things done.

Tuttle said he has received scores of letters and calls from people throughout the Sanford area, all supporting the notion that Pratt, a single mother to two grown daughters and grandmother of five, has more than earned a space in the solemn sanctuary she helped to create.

Which brings us to Pratt’s longtime day job.

She went to work for the Bureau of Veterans’ Services in 1999 after operating a child-care center for 22 years. At the time, it was just a new job, a chance to step away from her all-kids-all-the-time existence and work with adults for a change.

But it quickly became much more than that.

Pratt remembers one man, a regular client, who had fought in the Korean War but never talked about his military experience. Then one day he came in, sat down by her desk, and pulled from his wallet an old, worn piece of blue construction paper, folded in half.

“He opened it up and on the left was his (military unit) patch. And on the right was another patch that I didn’t recognize,” Pratt said.

“What is that?” she asked, pointing to the second patch. It came from an enemy uniform, the man told her. Its wearer, he confided with tears in his eyes, was the first person he killed in combat.

“He’d carried that in his wallet his entire life,” Pratt said. “And he just sat in my office and cried and cried and cried.”

Earlier this month, as fate would have it, Pratt transferred from the Springvale veterans services office to an open position as office administrator at the nearby cemetery.

Where once she helped veterans of all eras apply for benefits, obtain this or that form or overcome various other challenges in their daily lives, she now finds herself scheduling burials, explaining the ins and outs of military funerals and watching from her office window as survivors quietly navigate their grief over the loss of a loved one.

On her lunch breaks, Pratt goes outside to walk the beautifully manicured grounds, bask in the sunlit solitude and actually feel the presence of so many who served their country. When she looks at the names engraved on the headstones, she often closes her eyes and sees the face of a onetime client.

She won’t talk about Tuttle’s bill – as a state employee who actually now works at the cemetery, it just wouldn’t be appropriate. But the fact that someone would single her out for this unusual honor clearly matters.

“Just sitting here every day, looking at the flags, it’s … it’s awesome,” she said.

Tuttle’s proposal is by no means a done deal. Before the Legislature can give its approval, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs must issue a waiver designating a plot in the cemetery for Pratt – a process now being spurred along by the staff of Maine U.S. Rep Chellie Pingree.

But Tuttle, himself a 10-year veteran of the Maine Army National Guard, won’t stop pushing. If ever there was a civilian who deserves to be buried among those who served their country, he said, it’s this unassuming woman who has served them so quietly and so well for so long.

“There are a few things in life, as a legislator, where you really think that something needs to be done,” Tuttle said. “This is one of them.”

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