At Home in Hyattsville: Lionel Harrell: A veteran in service to other veterans
By Reva G. Harris
Lionel Harrell, a reserved, respectable, family-oriented man and a longtime resident of Hyattsville, pursued a military- and veteran-focused career that spanned 43 years. He opened up to talk to me about life in Hyattsville, what it’s like to be a veteran of the Vietnam War, and the fulfillment he received while working at Arlington National Cemetery, where he served veterans and their families during their bereavement.
Lionel started off our conversation discussing the war in Vietnam. “I was the only son in my family,” he shared. “Yet, I was drafted for combat duty.”
He continued, “Like most Vietnam veterans, I do not like to talk about the war. It was a very unpopular war that divided the country. We were sent to a foreign country to help make life better for the people in Vietnam, but that did not happen. We were in the jungle losing lives. The politicians did not know what to do with us.”
Lionel explained, “The Vietnam War affected our physical and mental health. The war is still in my head today, and it will never go away.”
While in Vietnam, Lionel served as a combat soldier. After receiving an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army in 1971, he began a career at Arlington National Cemetery.
In 1976, Lionel and his wife were newlyweds looking to buy a home. Their real estate agent showed them a starter home in Hyattsville. Lionel refers to his home, fondly, as “the little house on the hill.”
“It’s a nice brick home that was built in 1953. My wife and I agreed to live in the house for only five years to start a family.”The owner of the house was anxious to sell, but his wife did not want to sell,” Lionel noted. “There was tension during the settlement; but we finalized the contract.”
Once the Harrells moved to their new home, they received a warm welcome from a family who lived a few blocks away. “The Haileys were the first family to welcome us to the community,” said Lionel. “The father, Mr. Hailey, was a veteran.” (Fittingly, when he died many years later, Lionel arranged his military burial service.)
“With time, my wife and I formed a special relationship with our next-door neighbors. The Ashbys were the best neighbors we ever had,” he exclaimed.
“I love Hyattsville,” Lionel said. “This community has always been quiet and somewhat hospitable.”
“My wife and I worked a lot, but after we had children, they formed friendships with other children and families in the neighborhood,” noted Lionel. “Staying in Hyattsville afforded us the opportunity to send our kids to college.”
Lionel reflected on the many changes he has seen in Hyattsville. “The main changes are in the Baltimore Avenue business corridor,” he recalled. “In the ‘70s, the only places to eat were the 7-11, a doughnut shop and the old McDonald’s, which was on the site where the Latino restaurant [El Camilito] is now located.”
Lionel described his work at Arlington National Cemetery. “As an internment services office assistant, I worked for more than 30 years coordinating and arranging military funerals,” he said. “I worked with all branches of the military. I felt a connection with the families, and I had compassion for them.”
He continued, “In my position, I could not make mistakes. I represented the superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery, and I had to deal with all types of people. My experience in combat helped me to facilitate any emergency that might occur and still remain calm.”
Lionel described one such incident: “On Sept. 11, 2001, at 9:30 a.m., I was at the administrative building preparing for the 10:00 a.m. service for the wife of a retired Air Force colonel. While I was talking to the colonel, we heard a loud explosion. I went out to check the gravesite, and I could see that the Pentagon had been hit. Over the boundary walls, I saw the wreckage and smoke. I went back inside to explain to the colonel that his wife’s gravesite was located on the same side where the Pentagon was hit. I asked him, ‘Do you want to reschedule the service or do you want to continue?’ The colonel responded, ‘I would like to continue.’ We lined up the funeral procession and drove to the gravesite to hold a Catholic committal service. It was a brief, but dignified service,” concluded Lionel.
He received many accolades and tokens of appreciation for his outstanding service to veterans while at Arlington cemetery. Philip Bigler, a former assistant historian for the cemetery, acknowledged Lionel in his book Honored Glory: “I am particularly grateful to Lionel Harrell, a good friend and colleague, who continues to typify the professionalism, dignity and compassion of all of those who work at Arlington National Cemetery.”
On Dec. 19, 2012, in honor of Lionel’s service to the cemetery, and right before his retirement, the Department of the Army presented him with a flag that had been flown over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
On Jan. 3, 2013, Lionel retired from Arlington cemetery to enjoy spending more time with his family.
At the close of our conversation, Lionel turned his focus back to the veterans of the Vietnam War. “In Vietnam, we were all brothers in the field of combat,” he asserted. “I have appreciation for all veterans; however, the veterans who served in the Vietnam War were never officially welcomed home.”
Lionel concluded, “So, this Veterans Day, in honor of all the men and women who served in Vietnam, I would like to take this time to say, ‘Welcome home.’”