Over the last few months a new, but recognizable face, has been in charge of the Washington State Veterans Cemetery in Medical Lake.
Rudy Lopez, the former command chief at Fairchild Air Force Base, began his tenure as director of the cemetery March 26. He fills the position previously held by former director Rich Cesler, who retired around this time last year.
Lopez and his family, who are from the western half of the U.S., were interested in remaining in the area, in part because of the geography.
“We’ve always loved being outdoors, in the mountains,” he said. “This area just has a lot of those things that we really enjoy doing in the off-time for my family.”
But more importantly, the people in the regional community left an impact on Lopez and his family.
“The other thing that really sold us in settling in this area is just the community at large,” he said. “We’ve never been associated with a community that was so supportive of the military and veteran populations as the Spokane area, and really Eastern Washington.”
He recalled the time spent in Moses Lake during 2011 when Fairchild rebuilt its runway, noting the community’s open arms for the visiting airmen. Most of the refueling missions for the base were flown out of the city during the construction period.
“That community just embraced the airmen, and just adopted them,” he said. “And it’s that way in every single community out here. They’re very patriotic and thankful for the service our veterans provide the country.”
Lopez previously worked in pharmacy for 18 years, moved on to health care administration and recently wrapped up his career as the command chief at Fairchild after three years. At Fairchild, he was the principle senior enlisted adviser to the wing commander on morale, welfare, discipline, training, fitness and effective utilization of the 92nd Air Refueling Wing’s 3,300 combat-ready enlisted personnel.
The cemetery will continue its regular events throughout the year, and recently came off its highest-attended Memorial Day service in its operation. It continues to be active in the Missing in America project, finding homes for remains of veterans left unclaimed. The cemetery also has a successful Wreaths Across America program held around Christmas, where wreaths are placed at every gravesite.
“So much of what we do here is comprised of teamwork,” he said.
Focusing on that teamwork aspect, Lopez has been hard at work connecting with the numerous groups and volunteer leaders affiliated with the cemetery. With the amount of helping hands at a funeral service, there is a special individualized touch that hopefully brings comfort to a grieving family.
“It allows us to treat those families as if they’re the only ones here today,” Lopez said.
A service is just one of the few times a member of the military is truly recognized as an individual. Apart from his or her initial entry into the service, promotion, recognition through an award and retirement, military personnel are rarely individualized.
“The last is at death, where we really single out the individual and thank them for the service to their country,” he said.
For Lopez, honoring the family is just as important as honoring military veterans. Their sacrifices and support are an invaluable part of the armed forces.
“You recruit the individual, but you retain the family,” he said.
Regarding the actual cemetery itself, Lopez said additional funding is being sought to add another columbarium wall for veterans’ ashes. He estimates that at the current rate, in about two or three years the existing walls will be filled.
For Lopez, the cemetery director position is all about continuing to provide an honorable service to veterans and their families.
“This is really humbling to have this opportunity to serve here,” he said. “I don’t view this as a job. I view this as an opportunity to take care of our veterans. I think our staff and all of our volunteer organizations, and individuals feel the same way. That’s why they’re so committed to this cemetery and all of the veterans and their families that we place out here.”
James Eik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.