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Veterans group puts middle schoolers on the hunt for history at national cemetery

Small American flags fly on graves at the Texas State Veterans Cemetery, Abilene, Texas, May 29, 2017. Memorial Day became an official federal holiday in 1971 and is held on the last Monday of May to honor the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. (U.S. Air Force/Released)

There was a sense of peace and quiet — even the wind kept its mouth shut for a moment — as Jayleen Hernandez studied the sandstone monument of Pvt. Dennis O’Leary, a turn-of-the-20th-century soldier who served in the 23rd Infantry Company of the U.S. Army.

An image of O’Leary sitting with his back against a tree is one of the largest, most visible and most mysterious monuments in the Santa Fe National Cemetery. Questions remain about O’Leary’s life and death. Did he die by suicide after building his own tombstone out of sandstone, as one story goes, or did he die of tuberculosis at Fort Wingate near Gallup on April 1, 1901, as military records indicate?

Hernandez, a seventh grader at El Camino Real Academy of Santa Fe, said if she could speak to O’Leary she would ask him the big question.

Spurring thought — and questions — is just what educators and military historians were after in this trip to the cemetery, hosted by the Veterans Legacy Project. More than 60 El Camino Real students took part Monday, walking through the hallowed ground where more than 65,000 remains are interred.

Organizers, who hope young people will be encouraged to learn more and write about the state’s veterans, made the field trip into a scavenger hunt of sorts, as the students split into small groups and visited particular graves to see what they could find out about those interred below them.

They had a lot of history to choose from: the cemetery has graves related to the American frontier, the Spanish-American War, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, plus those who participated in the Bataan Death March and were Navajo Code Talkers. Those who served in the nation’s more recent conflicts are there, as well.

In another section of the cemetery, more than 30 Confederate soldiers, all casualties of the Battle of Glorieta Pass in New Mexico in March 1862, are buried. A group of students from the school gathered around to make notes about the inscription as history teacher Tyler Dunnahoo provided some background and encouraged them to take notes and ask questions.

Dunnahoo said it was the first time many of his students had done something like this. “Ultimately,” he said, “this helps give them an understanding about the history and legacy of New Mexico.”

The students showed particular interest in visiting the graves of Buffalo Soldiers and Navajo Code Talkers — veterans whose service is directly tied to New Mexico in that they either were stationed or born in the Southwest. Those aspects of New Mexico’s military life are covered in Dunnahoo’s New Mexico history class at the school.

The trip got some of the kids thinking about those lessons. Seventh grader Julian Alas told those around him it’s possible the outcome of the Civil War might have gone differently had Black soldiers — many of whom remained in uniform to become Buffalo Soldiers in the postwar era — not fought for the Union, which proved victorious in the end.

He said the field trip was “fun [and] interesting; you can learn new things about the soldiers who fought for us.”

The Confederates’ headstones in the cemetery have pointed tops, a detail that didn’t go unnoticed by some students. Stephen Martinez, a history teacher at the Santa Fe Community College and one of the Veterans Legacy Project leaders, told the students one explanation often cited without historical confirmation is they were built that way so no Yankees would ever sit on them. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration’s website says the explanation is apocryphal, but it offers no other reasoning for the graves’ design.

Monday’s visit was part of an attempt to broaden the Veterans Legacy Project’s mission. Last year, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Cemetery Administration granted $500,000 to allow the initiative to expand its reach. Where students initially researched the history of veterans buried at the Santa Fe National Cemetery and then interviewed their surviving relatives and friends to create a short biography, the funding allowed the project to create a K-12 instructional component.

The field trip, like one conducted earlier in the school year with high school students, is part of that K-12 program, Martinez said, adding the project plans to request another $500,000 grant from the national veterans’ agency. If it comes through, it will allow the project to research veterans at other military cemeteries in the state and focus on the legacy of New Mexico women who served in World Wars I and II, he said.

Several students said they were skeptical about visiting a cemetery for a field trip. One boy said it was “weird.” Another said his grandparents are buried there, and he plans to come back to find out where they are interred.

Jayleen Hernandez said she was “surprised” when she heard the students were headed to the cemetery to search for historical clues from the dead. Usually, she said, they go to museums or other places where people talk about historical events.

“I think it’s cool we are doing a scavenger hunt on the Navajo Code Talkers,” she said.

According to the lesson plan for the field trip, students would learn to use such a simple object as a gravesite as a primary or secondary source to kick off research on a veteran.

There’s plenty to research in the cemetery, said Cameron Sperry, assistant principal at El Camino Real Academy, as she watched the students move around the facility.

“Each headstone tells a piece of the history,” she said.


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