COLUMBIA CITY — For multiple years, local veteran Gary Bird, along with others from the American Legion and VFW, have been putting flags next to the headstones of those military men buried in Whitley County. While doing this, Bird began to notice several of these headstones were in various states of disrepair – some were leaning, others were broken and dirty. He decided to do something about it.
He got in touch with Berne’s Legion group who had started a project to clean and repair the markers at veteran’s graves and, taking their lead, Bird brought this program to Whitley County.
“My motto is veterans helping veterans. It’s a big part (of what we learn) in the military. We help each other, we always have, and this is my continuing effort to support these veterans,” said Bird. “I decided this was something I could do to give back.”
Last fall, Bird identified a few cemeteries to begin the work. It’s important to note, though, headstones and markers provided to veterans are through the National Cemetery Administration (NCA), and as such are considered federal property. There are specific rules to know and abide by when cleaning and restoring them. After becoming acquainted with them, and gaining further certification through the DNR in order to dig up or adjust stones lost under the dirt, Bird set to work.
Using a special cleaner, he and a small group of trained volunteers do what they can to remove any animal droppings, dirt, moss, mold or others debris. The results from this process have proven surprising, with most stones coming back looking almost new. The results, Bird said, still surprise him sometimes. Each marker takes around 15-20 minutes, save for those that might need some additional TLC.
There’s been several memorable moments through this process so far, Bird said. One of those was the Bethel-Ream Cemetery. With the support of trustee Matt Minier and Elks Lodge 1417 they were able to remove a fallen tree and start repairing some of these stones there. Better yet, the Elks has adopted the cemetery as their project and will continue efforts to restore and keep this resting place clean.
Bird said it was encouraging to see, and something he hopes others will be inspired to do as well, to help pay respect to those who have been laid to rest in Whitley County.
Most recently, Bird has been hard at work cleaning the markers for veterans in Greenhill Cemetery. So far, 93 have been cleaned and repaired.
This is a passion project for Bird, but doing this has started a new adventure for him and others who assist him. Each marker completed leaves a story the team wants to discover – who these veterans were, where and who they served with and more. Finding these stories is a journey all its own, and he shares them via the group’s Facebook page. It’s a time-consuming process, but worth it so these veterans are always remembered.
The work is not over though, and Bird continues to make progress at Greenhill, hoping to have as many markers completed before the Memorial Day ceremony that takes place there each year. Deb Gibson Hackworth, who also assists in this project, has started work on South Park Cemetery. Plans are also to work on Nolt and Eberhart cemeteries this year.
Free cleaning kits have been created and are being provided to those community members looking to clean a headstone for their own loved one. Bird also offers instructions on how to clean them in order to meet federal guidelines.
The cost of the cleaning solution is $50 a gallon, the major expense Bird said they have. Donations are accepted, and can be made through the Whitley County Community Foundation. The address for donations is 400 N. Whitley St. in Columbia City or through the foundation’s website at www.cfwhitley.org. Those interested in donating, or volunteering on this project, can reach out to him at 260-229-3324 or by email email@example.com.
Bird posts his progress, as well as the veteran’s stories they find, on the Whitley County Veterans Cemetary Cleaning & Restoration Facebook page.
“Every stone is a little different – some take more work, some less. We welcome donations to help us buy more supplies and keep our cleaning efforts going.”
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