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Personal project sees veteran headstones getting replaced


by Jean Fremion-McKibben

In August 2011 I officially undertook an endeavor, the Veterans' Headstone Project (VHP), to replace the headstones of LaGrange County veterans.

I am a volunteer photographer for Find A Grave, so I’m out and about in local cemeteries on my days off whenever I can. I am always saddened at the sight of the crumbling, lonely headstones for veterans who we owe so much to. Clearly no one had visited these graves for ages with the exception of members from American Legion Post 215, who dutifully place American flags on each veteran’s grave in the county for Memorial Day every year.

I had seen new government-provided headstones on occasion, and so the idea of a project to replace the damaged stones was born.

I also found that in many cases the original headstone, be it government provided or private, was long gone or the veteran never had a stone in the first place. Obviously the headstones at the top of the list are those from very early wars but certainly not limited to those conflicts. This first round includes six Civil War Union veterans plus one veteran of the War of 1812.

 I have valuable assistance and support from Allen Connelly of the LaGrange County Veterans Service Office and Jack Miller from American Legion Post 215. Both these men have, over the years, procured many replacement headstones for veterans as well. Once the headstones are applied for and approved by the federal government, the real work of the project begins. Since I have started this project in Greenwood Cemetery, I have had the great fortune to have Greenwood Sexton Terry Bollinger and his staff working with me. They have done amazing work preparing the sites to receive the new stones, including removal of the old headstones, brush removal when necessary, excavation of the site for placement of the new stone, etc.

The new headstones are delivered to LaGrange Monument Works, where Wes Speicher and his sons prepare the headstones for setting. Each stone weighs about 230 pounds and the guys set the headstones in concrete slabs at the shop.

When the time comes to set the stone at the cemetery, the slab is already affixed to the marker and the whole unit placed in wet concrete in the prepared site. Lots of back straining work by everyone – don't know what I'd do without "my guys."

I've made sure that there is an appropriate American flag holder for each veteran and most have had one for years. If one is lacking, I have a small supply on hand courtesy of Tom Hulen from Rome City American Legion Post 381.

Round 2 of the VHP is in the works and fundraising has begun. The federal government provides the new headstones free of charge and the fee for setting the stones is minimal thanks to the Speicher family. I was thrilled with the generous financial assistance for Round 1 from the County of LaGrange, American Legion Post 215, Tom and Jane Hulen of Wolcottville, and Sharla and Mark Thompson of Topeka.

Keep in mind the Memorial Day wreath laying ceremonies at 9 a.m. in Riverside Cemetery in Howe and 11 a.m. in Greenwood Cemetery in LaGrange. We are well in to the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and the bicentennial of the War of 1812 kicks off in June.