Veterans' unmarked graves get new chance at tombstones
Todd Kleismit remembers the summer day in 2012 when he and other history enthusiasts gathered at Green Lawn Cemetery in Columbus to mark the graves of Civil War veterans who had lain in anonymity for decades.
Kleismit, the director of community and government relations for Ohio History Connection, was gathering with AmeriCorps volunteers who had worked tirelessly to research and identify the unmarked graves. As the group stood near the newly marked graves, some teared up. Others spoke in honor of people they had never met.
At the time, Kleismit hoped it would become an annual event.
But a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs rule — written in 2009 and enacted in 2012 — stopped that hope in its tracks.
The requirement stipulated that only next of kin could request VA memorials. The change not only meant that Ohio History Connection and other groups that had honored veterans could no longer request tombstones, but it also left many deceased veterans to remain unrecognized; it’s often hard to find the next of kin of someone who died during the Spanish-American War.
Now that rule has been revised. As of April 1, representatives of veterans organizations can order headstones or markers as long as efforts have been made to consult the next of kin. For veterans whose service ended before 1917 — those least likely to have a surviving family member — anyone can request a tombstone.
The rule was changed in large part because of a bill introduced in 2013 by Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Upper Arlington. Stivers’ bill — co-sponsored by Reps. Pat Tiberi, R-Genoa Township, and Joyce Beatty, D-Jefferson Township — sought to change the regulation if the VA failed to act. His quest resulted in hearings on the issue.
At one hearing, Glenn Powers, deputy under secretary for field programs for the National Cemetery Administration, said he wanted to make the regulation less limiting but still ensure that family members are included in decisions. When the rule was instituted, Powers said, “there was a concern that very well-intended people were asking for headstones and markers, and we were removing families from the equation.”
But Stivers said there was little evidence that anyone was overruling families’ intent.
This year's rule change, he said, “is going to help make sure a lot of veterans in neglected or unmarked graves get a chance to have their service recognized.”
The new change also means that work like that of retired Washington Court House history teacher Paul LaRue can continue. Beginning in 2001, his classes researched the unmarked graves of veterans. When the headstones were dilapidated, destroyed or missing, they would order new ones. In 2013, the rule change abruptly stopped his work. He was one of those to testify in support of Stivers’ request.
LaRue, 57, retired in 2014 but is still doing workshops to encourage history teachers to embrace historic preservation in the classroom.
“I’m amazed when I see students who have been out of school now for quite a while, and they still remember, ‘I helped with that headstone,’” he said. “We did this with a great sense of pride."
This article was first published on The Columbus Dispatch's website on May 30, 2016.