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Restoring Veterans’ Graves

Monday, May 31, 2004 at 8:50 AM

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Memorial Day is dedicated to honoring those who died serving the U.S. in wars. But it's an unfortunate fact that thousands of the headstones of these veterans, in the past, have gone untended year after year. ideastream's Tasha Cook has a report about one man's efforts at restoring veterans' graves.

Highland Park Cemetery offers a quiet retreat from the traffic of nearby Chagrin Boulevard. At this time of year, its emerald-green grass seems to stretch forever, until the skyline is punctuated here and there by weeping willow trees. This cemetery is the final resting place for more than 20,000 veterans of wars, many dating back before the Civil War. James Fell, executive director of the Cuyahoga County Veterans Service Commission, calls it the county’s “Arlington Cemetery.”

James Fell: There’s a lot of history lying in these graves here.

That history is described on rows and rows of upright and flat headstones. On some, the inscriptions of names and dates and honors are fading. Fell, who served on active duty during the Gulf War, walked among his fellow veterans near a reddish boulder with a plaque commemorating the Spanish-American War, which began in 1898.

James Fell: In the section we’re in right now with the upright headstones - these are very historic - they date back, some of them almost a hundred years and due to the effects of like acid rain and the elements, they do get eroded. What we’re in the process of doing is the ones that have become illegible - replacing those.

In addition to restoring headstones, Fell and his organization have identified close to 200 unmarked graves.

James Fell: A problem that we have and this has slowed us down a great deal is that only about one third of the cemeteries in Cuyahoga County have a good idea of actually just how many veterans they have buried there. The other two-thirds really don’t know.

To track down names and missing death records, Fell collaborates with the Ohio Historical Society, the Western Reserve Historical Society Library, local genealogy groups and historians.

James Fell: The one I’m holding here is for World War II. This one that says G.A.R. stands for Grand Army Republic.

Fell holds a decorative Civil War Union Veteran flag holder, which can positioned next to a war veteran’s grave. Each war, including the World Wars and the Korean War, has its own distinctive marker.

Besides restorations and identifications, Fell has some other concerns.

James Fell: One thing that tugs at my heart a great deal is the knowledge of the number of veterans passing away from all wartime eras, but particularly the World War II veterans. My father is a living navy veteran from World War Two, and most of these gentlemen and ladies - they’re in their late, late seventies and in their eighties - and just knowing that they’re not going to be with us too many more Memorial Days really saddens me.

Fell sees his restoration efforts as a moral and legal duty.

James Fell: I’m 52 years old, and I’m in my post one of the younger men that belong. So that’s another legacy that I worry about in ten, twenty years that is going to be fading away unless we get our younger veterans to join and perpetuate the tradition.

It’s a tradition Fell hopes others will carry on, to honor the memory of Ohioans who served and died for the United States. In Cleveland, Tasha Cook, 90.3.

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