Gail Rosenblum
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More than 20,000 people will pass through the gates of Fort Snelling National Cemetery this Memorial Day weekend, bringing fresh-cut flowers and finely honed memories to the graves of veterans and their families buried here. Eight hundred full-sized flags will fly along the broad streets of one of the nation’s busiest military cemeteries.

And, for the first time in 35 years, a U.S. flag will be placed at about 178,000 headstones, funded by the volunteer organization Flags for Fort Snelling.

This special weekend “is when the cemetery is most alive,” said Robert Roeser, an Army veteran who served in Iraq and Bosnia. But he has a gift for making this serene setting come alive most days of the year.

I’ve driven past this stately cemetery a hundred times on my rush to Terminal 2 of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. I’ve seen its meticulously laid headstones sprinkled with summer buds and winter snow. Humbled and intimidated by its scope, I never thought of it as a place I would visit.

A week ago, tour-guide extraordinaire Roeser convinced me otherwise. “It is a jewel,” he said, bounding outside the administrative offices under a hot sun, wearing a red short-sleeved shirt with “Fort Snelling” embroidered on it. “This is not like a normal cemetery,” he said. “This is a national shrine. We look at these markers as shrines.”

Four years in as the cemetery’s full-time administrative officer, Roeser said he has “one of the best jobs in the Veterans Administration,” meeting with families, learning their stories and assisting them “through one of the most difficult times of their lives.”

Fort Snelling is the 10th-largest cemetery in the National Cemetery Administration, but the fourth-busiest. Minnesotans are big on having loved ones buried in a veterans’ cemetery, Roeser noted, especially those in the metro area. Nearly 40 percent of Twin Cities vets choose this option, compared with a national average of 15 percent.

While nine Medal of Honor recipients are enshrined with gold-engraved stones, all who are buried here served in important ways, with “amazing” stories, Roeser said. To prove it, we stopped at the grave of Charles Lindberg. Not the famed pilot, this one was among the original flag-raisers at Iwo Jima. Over there is Henry Mack, an African-American slave who escaped and came to the North to join the Union Army.

And Tom Burnett Jr., a hero of Sept. 11. His grave will be among the most visited this weekend, Roeser said.

“Death is the great equalizer,” he said. “They all served their country and they all passed away. We’ll have a colonel buried next to a private. Army soldier next to a Marine. Regardless of their rank or religion, they made a decision to serve.”

The original Fort Snelling was an Army post established in 1805. It opened on these grounds on July 14, 1939. George H. Mallon was the first soldier laid to rest on what is now Mallon Road.

Today, the cemetery serves more than 1.4 million veterans from Minnesota, western Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota, with more than 5,300 burials annually. Most are World War II veterans, followed by veterans of Vietnam. Roeser also has overseen active-duty deaths among those serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Losing a life at any time is tough,” he said. “Losing a life early is challenging.”

About 70 percent of veterans are cremated. An automated gravesite locator in the visitors center helps families locate specific graves, as well as a scatter garden for cremains and a memorial wall, in tribute to fallen Minnesota troops.

The cemetery’s stunning conformity is created by identically shaped marble markers, each weighing 240 pounds and kept in immaculate condition. When flowers around a stone become “unsightly,” they are removed.

The cemetery features 68 approved emblems of belief, including the Christian cross, the Jewish Star, the Lutheran rose, as well as American Indian, Mormon and atheist symbols. Even the wording on stones must be approved.

Yes to: “Now he soars with eagles”; “Old Timmy”; “Proud American”; “Rest easy — we have the watch.” No to: “He went first,” Roeser said, stifling a laugh.

Roeser, 47, grew up in Waconia and still lives there with his wife, Shannon, and sons Kaleb, 16, and Korey, 11. Son Christopher, 28, serves in the Army and is the father of four.

Roeser became a dad at 18, so he joined the Army less out of passion and more out of pragmatism.

He later served full-time in the Minnesota National Guard and “loved what I did,” but he always had his eye on serving his country and its families in this very place.

“I come out and visit my grandparents, my wife’s grandparents,” he said.

He’s proud of each of Fort Snelling’s 50 employees, especially the maintenance and interment crews, whom he stopped to greet. The former care for the lawns and grounds, trim trees, pick up dead flowers and wash stones. The latter “make sure the ground is nice and level and clean.” Twelve months of the year.

And he couldn’t do the work he does without his administrative staff, veterans and nonveterans, “who perform burial services with dignity and honor.”

Over the years, Roeser has kept mental notes on some of his favorite stops. There’s a berm, where visitors “can really see the scope of the cemetery,” and the nearby airport. Near the entrance, there’s an amusing “fake stone,” made from plastic and rubber, which was tested in 1991 for weather- and chip-resistance. It was never used, but the stone stands.

Roeser’s favorite spot is likely a seldom visited area honoring the remains of 270 unknown soldiers who were transferred from the old Post Cemetery in 1939. Through outreach and tours, he wants to make sure that everyone stops here and that this area becomes “one of the most visited.”

“The feeling that you get [standing here] is something that’s tough to explain,” he said.

“You know they were servicemen and servicewomen and you feel a little bit in awe. The fact that they are unknown gives you a serene feeling.”

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350 • Twitter: @grosenblum