Through cemeteries, veteran bridges service to living, fallen service members

LEESBURG, Va. Two years after joining the Army in 1987, Kevin Knight had what he still considers to be the worst day of his life: A doctor delivered the news that the detached retina in his right eye rendered him "no more good to the Army."

But he wasn't about to leave his fellow soldiers behind. Knight became the first in his 16-member family to graduate college, then went on to get his master's degree. After working under the CEOs of several major corporations like General Motors, he decided to go ahead with his lifelong dream of founding his own company.

Knight briefs his workers during a project at Fort Belvoir Gerber Village.
Courtesy Knight Solutions

"I think a lot of it had to do with how I grew up, watching my father who was a great man, who worked his butt off on a day in, day out basis," Knight told CBSNews.com about his ambitions. "But he didn't have a lot of opportunities to do what he wanted to do."

Growing up near Hampton National Cemetery in Hampton, Va., Knight noticed the grounds weren't necessarily in tip-top shape: "Grounds need to be upkept for families that go out there," he said. "And I was actually one of those families, at my brother in law's funeral, who was a Vietnam vet, and I had a chance to see that."

So he hatched an idea. Knight would build a company that sought out veterans to care for national cemeteries.

"It goes hand in hand," he said. "As a military guy, you want to take care of your fallen soldiers, you want to take care of your living soldiers."

Now working on cemeteries from San Diego, Calif., to Long Island, N.Y., to Leesburg, Va., where he's headquartered, Knight Solutions, a general contracting firm, works closely with the National Cemetery Administration to identify military cemeteries in need of upkeep or renovation. Projects range from maintaining grounds to designing and constructing crypts to raising and aligning headstones.

Knight Solutions workers raise and align headstones at Richmond National Cemetery in Henrico, Va.
Courtesy Knight Solutions

Once a project is commissioned, Knight Solutions begins to seek out workers, specifically veterans, who make up about 50 percent of his current 130 employees. He finds them by going through the veteran representative at the site's local employment agency as well as VA hospitals, where veterans are eligible for compensated work therapy.

"We'll come in a week or two before, we'll do interviewing, orientation, and we put our vets to work," Knight said. "I say, 'Hey, you're a vet, I'm a vet. We never leave our brothers behind. We're gonna take care of their resting grounds; we're gonna make sure that when their loved ones go out to see them resting, we're gonna give them shrine status.'"

A backhoe bearing the Knight Solutions logo at Richmond National Cemetery in Henrico, Va.
Courtesy Knight Solutions

Shrine status, Knight explained, means: "Every headstone should be lined up straight, plum, no matter which way you're looking they're straight and narrow, and the grounds are pristine, green. And, it just looks like a shrine."

Knight says projects typically take between one and five years. When one ends, he offers the veterans, ranging in age from 18 to 60, to move to another site - so long as business is steady.

So far, so good. This year, "Inc. 500" named Knight Solutions among the fastest-growing private companies in America, and in 2012, the city of Leesburg awarded it with the first-ever Veterans Affairs Award.

Such recognition "means we're doing something right," and that "our mission of hiring vets is making an impact," Knight said. But for him, the real reward for his successful vision is what it offers his veterans.

"It means everything," he said. "I've had a number of my vets come to me and say this gives them a sense of purpose, this gives them a sense of closure when they wake up on a daily basis. It just makes them whole."

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    Lindsey Boerma is senior video producer for CBSNews.com.

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