From Leading the Nation’s Premier Military Burial Ground to Leading our Nation’s Future Funeral Directors

Posted October 18, 2017

6 min read

One day after his retirement ceremony from the Army, Jack Lechner received a surprising phone call.

“I had a retirement ceremony on Friday, and then on Tuesday I was told by the Secretary of the Army’s office that I needed to get my retirement orders revoked and report to Arlington National Cemetery in uniform,” says Lechner. (At present, Lechner is President of the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science, or CCMS.)

As surprising as it may have been, he started the new position in June 2010.

Restoring Honor to Arlington National Cemetery

At Arlington National Cemetery, Lechner was part of a new leadership team brought in to bring back prestige to the cemetery after a serious scandal around that time in 2010. “Working to restore honor at Arlington National Cemetery was an honor and privilege that words can’t convey,” explains Lechner.

“With approximately 8,200 funerals per year, Arlington National Cemetery is a busy place. Although I didn’t see or meet every family or attend every funeral, you can bet I was involved for every issue with every family.”

Lechner would serve as the Executive Officer, Cemetery Administrator, Deputy Superintendent, and he culminated his five-year tenure by serving as Superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery until the beginning of August 2015.

“Overseeing 30 funerals per day, with military honors, caissons, marching bands, escort platoons, rider-less horses, cannon salutes, flyovers, firing parties, and more, while hosting visiting dignitaries, while 3.1 million visitors a year are touring this National Shrine is a daunting mission—but I loved every minute of it,” he says.

“The amount of funeral experience gained at Arlington National Cemetery in just one year is more than some death care professionals may experience in a lifetime of service to the profession.”

Change at Arlington National Cemetery

Under Lechner’s leadership, Arlington National Cemetery was restored to its rightful position of honor as a national shrine. Additionally, automated systems were developed for scheduling/record keeping and a geospatial mapping system was created to assign and track grave/niche assignments.

Lechner explains that one of the most stringent chain of custody systems in the federal system of cemeteries was established to ensure every family received peace of mind about the grounds where their loved one had been laid to rest.

An app was also developed that provided families and the 3.1 million tourists per year with the ability to find any grave, or tour the cemetery using their phone. The app (which was also award-winning) helped the burial ground honor the past while also offering innovative offerings to families and visitors.

Bringing Compassionate Care to a Premier Military Cemetery

Lechner also recognized another opportunity during his time there: “There was no training in place for the civilian workforce that was interfacing with the public on a day-to-day basis.” Put simply, these were staff members that had no prior bereavement skills training.

Seeing the need, Lechner brought in bereavement skills experts and developed a bereavement skills training model. He then put the program in effect for the cemetery. His vision was that that this program could help ensure all staff members could provide world class service, in a compassionate and caring manner.

“Now, everybody who deals with bereaved families has received at least some training.”

Milestone Projects at Arlington National Cemetery

By the time Lechner departed Arlington National Cemetery, the $71.8 million “Millennium Project” (intended to add 27 acres and 27,282 interment/inurnment opportunities) was on budget and on time to be completed. Also, the $247 million “Southern Expansion Project” was well underway, and the Army had taken possession of approximately 40 contiguous acres to the south with the project’s $70.8 million annual budget being executed as planned.

For those interested, Lechner says the best time to visit Arlington National Cemetery is in Autumn. “Plan your visit to coincide with the height of the color change, which is usually in late October,” says Lechner.

“Arlington National Cemetery has over 8,500 trees spread all over the 651 developed acres that provide a colorful backdrop. The weather has cooled and the crowds have thinned that time of year also, so everything is visible and there is very little waiting.”

Before Lechner’s Time at Arlington National Cemetery

What many people may not know about Lechner is his background—even before his assignment at Arlington National Cemetery.

Lechner was a practicing funeral director for 10 years before enlisting in the United States Army. He earned his associate degree in 1975 and mortuary science certificate in 1976 from Mercer County Community College. He then became a licensed Practitioner of Mortuary Science in New Jersey, and was the co-founder of South Jersey Funeral Associates, Inc.

“The reason I went into the military was because I was 27 years old, and I hadn’t been out of ‘Hometown USA.’” A friend of Lechner’s came to the funeral home one day, and shared his experience of being in the Navy Reserve.

“He had just flown back from Spain that weekend. He was an aviation navigator, and he was wearing his uniform and driving a Corvette, and I started wondering, ‘What am I missing?’”

It was the catalyst behind a decision that would change his life forever. “I signed up for the total adventure package. I signed up to be Airborne Ranger Infantry. Believe me, I got everything I asked for,” says Lechner with a smile.

Lechner would go on to earn his Bachelor of Mortuary Science degree from CCMS in 1990—setting the stage for what would come full circle decades later. (He also holds a Master of Science degree in Logistics Management, Florida Tech and a Master of Science degree in National Resource Strategy, National Defense University, Washington, DC.)

“Returning Home”

Directly following his time at Arlington, Lechner had been the Integrated Logistics Systems Division Chief at Headquarters, Department of the Army, Pentagon. There he was responsible for ensuring the integrated logistics support for the entire lifecycle of all the Army’s combat platform acquisitions. (That was more than $480 million during a fiscal year and included a procurement of more than $2.79 billion for the life of the program.)

Before his arrival on the Joint Staff, Pentagon, Lechner was the Chief of Staff for the 316th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) headquartered in Balad, Iraq. The 20,000 Soldiers in these brigades were responsible for all logistical support in the Iraqi theater of war.

Throughout the years, Lechner returned “home” to the CCMS many times, both as a guest speaker in the classroom and providing the commencement address during a 2015 graduation ceremony. Then, in January of 2016 (after his time at Arlington National Cemetery), he was appointed as the President of CCMS—making his journey truly come full circle.

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Photo courtesy of Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science.

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