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Operation Headstone: unmarked graves of military veterans to get markers

(U.S. Air Force /Staff Sgt. Benjamin W. Stratton)

If a grave can be lonely, U.S. Navy veteran Hulen Lovelady’s final resting place surely fits the bill.

The former Bakersfield resident died in 2005, and while his grave at Greenlawn Cemetery Southwest is surrounded by markers, Lovelady’s grave is covered only by green grass. The military veteran has no marker on his grave — no name to identify him.

And he’s not the only one.

His grave is one of dozens of unmarked veteran graves at Greenlawn’s two cemeteries, an astonishing total that may exceed 100, said Greenlawn President and CEO Jim La Mar.

“I don’t think anyone who has ever served would imagine they would be forgotten,” he said.

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That’s why Greenlawn is joining forces with local veterans from VFW Post 97 and Josh Dhanens, the director of the Kern County Veterans Service Department, to identify all unmarked veteran graves at Greenlawn Southwest and Northeast and install gravestones on each and every one of them.

“As a Vietnam veteran, it bothers me that people can walk through a cemetery and not know a veteran is even there,” said Bill Potter, a board member at VFW Post 97 on South Union Avenue in Bakersfield.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs furnishes at no charge to the applicant, a headstone or marker for the unmarked grave of any deceased eligible veteran in any cemetery around the world, regardless of their date of death.

So if that’s the case, why do so many graves remain unmarked?

According to La Mar, there are likely a variety of reasons. Maybe a family only had enough money to cover the funeral and burial, and the $500 for perpetual care and the placement fee to set the gravestone was more than they could afford.

“Sometimes it’s out of sight, out of mind,” he said. “Or some may still owe money and be embarrassed to come back.”

Family members may have died or moved away.

Whatever the reasons, La Mar has decided Greenlawn will cover any fees connected to ordering and installing gravestones for deceased veterans who currently are without a marker.

“I believe if you do what’s right, everything else will follow,” La Mar said.

“Don’t tell us what we can’t do,” he said. “Tell us what we need to do to get this done.”

The first thing they need to do is walk every grave in both cemeteries and document the locations and identities of every veteran whose grave remains unmarked. That will happen on Memorial Day weekend, when flags are placed on every veteran’s grave.

Once that’s done, the markers must be ordered.

“I can request headstones for veterans,” said Dhanens, of the county veterans service department.

Dhanens also has access to many local veterans’ discharge documents, known as a DD-214, and the information on those forms may be needed to request gravestones.

“It just seems like the right thing to do,” he said of Operation Headstone, the name some have given the evolving effort.

VFW Post 97 Cmdr. Wayne Wright and Potter said they’re sure their post will support the effort, and the entire community will get behind it.

“How many people walk through a cemetery and read the headstones?” Wright asked.

“Everyone,” La Mar said.

But for those without a headstone, it’s almost as if they never existed. And that doesn’t sit well with any of the organizers.

“This is a great project for the VFW,” Potter said. “It’s a great project for our community.”

But it may be bigger than any of them imagined.

If there are 100 unmarked veteran graves at Greenlawn, how many are at other cemeteries across Kern County? And how many deceased vets throughout the state and across the country are without an identifying gravestone?

“I think it could be in the tens of thousands,” La Mar said. “I hope this becomes a national campaign.”

As the men stood over the unmarked grave, La Mar said the status quo just isn’t good enough anymore.

“This does not keep a memory alive,” he said of the unmarked graves. “We owe it to our veterans to make this right.”

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© 2020 The Bakersfield Californian