ROCK SPRINGS – When it comes to the places where members of our military are buried, these men and women rest in hallowed ground.
As President Abraham Lincoln noted in his Gettysburg Address, “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”
We cannot contribute or take away from their sacrifices, but we can remember and respect them. In advance of Memorial Day, which is meant to honor those who died in active military service, members of local veteran groups labored to add gravestones to the unmarked burial sites of veterans.
UNMARKED NO MORE
There are 1,580 veterans buried in the Rock Springs Cemetery. Angela Cable researched local history conducted a survey of the cemetery and identified 57 veteran graves that did not have a gravestone or precise record of the location of the graves. They included veterans of the Civil War, Indian Wars, Camp Pilot Butte, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II and Vietnam War. Not all of them lived locally, but they all had local family and other connections.
Veterans Affairs, formerly the Veterans Administration, provides a free gravestone to any eligible active duty member who died in service and any honorably discharged veteran in an unmarked grave anywhere in the world. Based on Cable’s work, the High Desert Chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution has been working with the VA to get stones ordered and delivered. Sometimes it only took three weeks from submission to a stone’s arrival. Then it was up to local volunteers to put the markers in place.
The headstones came in waves, and in May four concrete pours, dozens of volunteer hours and a few workdays were committed to cementing the stones. Many of the workers were members of American Legion Post 24, American Legion Auxiliary, Sons of the American Legion, and DAR, though Rock Springs municipal workers and local businesses also contributed.
“This is awesome to get the help out here,” said Lisa Sheesley, an auxiliary member.
In the most recent round, 31 stones were placed place in the Rock Springs cemetery. An additional stone was sent by mistake. It had to be destroyed because postage was cost prohbitive.
The recipient veterans were spread across multiple sections. Some were buried with family, such as Paul Behun, who rests next to his stepfather George Behun, who was also a veteran. In the circumstances where the veterans’ final resting places are unknown, multiple stones were placed on a single marker, like in the case of John Dugas, Florian Pinter and Prentice George Landenberger.
Once the concrete was poured by Sunroc workers and finished, the volunteers moved carefully to position the headstones that weighed more than 70 pounds.
“Nothing to it,” one joked.
Those who did the heavy lifting for the gravestone project included Sons of the American Legion members Blaine Slagowski and Lynn Smith; Lisa Sheesley of the auxiliary; and American Legionnaires including Post 24 Cmdr. Bill Stapleton, John Ferraro, Pal Perez, Carl Pivic, Jim Sheesley, and Doug Uhrig. They were supported by Cemetery Sexton Chris Doak and other city staff; Sweetwater County Veterans Service Officer Sam Esquibel, who got the needed military service documentation and submit the applications; other members of American Legion Post 24, especially Leonard Merrell; Vase Funeral Home, which provided funeral records; the Rocket Miner newspaper, which runs DAR’s biographical articles about these veterans; editors Ann Jantz and Caleb Michael White; Sunroc, which donated and poured the cement slabs; Rock Springs Historical Museum; Jennifer Messer, Janice Brown, Angela Cable, and Richelle Rawlings; all the genealogy researchers from the DAR including Gail Robinson, Judi Laughter, Joni Stainbrook, Crystal Deibner, Angela Cable and Betty Blackwell; and families of the veterans living in France, California, Indiana, Kansas, Colorado, Texas, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Wyoming and other places via email and phone.
For more information on the VA headstones program, go to www.va.gov/burials-memorials/memorial-items/headstones-markers-medallions.