Veterans and historical groups and families across the nation are facing road blocks as they try to bring official recognition to their long-dead ancestors.
In 2009, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs enacted a policy that only “eligible applicants” can request a tombstone or grave marker for an ancestor who is buried in an unmarked grave. The policy apparently went unenforced until recently. Now, members of historical groups across the country seeking to get markers for veterans’ unmarked graves say they’ve been turned down because they weren’t direct descendants.
The VA’s National Cemetery Administration says the agency understands the concern that the definition of an applicant for a marker may be “too limiting” and is reviewing the regulation.
Obtaining the grave markers for veterans is something often done by local groups including the Washington County Veterans Affair Office and local chapters of Sons of the American Revolution, as well as other groups. Members say they hope to be able to continue to do so, despite the change.
In recent years, they have worked to get markers for Revolutionary War soldiers Jonathan Dunham buried in Dunham Township, William Ford II and Joel Adams buried in Watertown Township and Brig. General James Mitchell Varnum buried in Marietta, among others.
In such cases, the veterans might have a tombstone bought by the family but that includes no recognition of their military service. Others have no markers at all. This mainly applies to veterans with service before World War I.
The VA’s National Cemetery Administration definition of “eligible applicants” would keep someone “lacking a familial relationship to the veteran (to) alter a veterans grave site in a manner the veteran’s family does not desire.”
The issue is, for most of those veterans who served in the Civil War or the Revolutionary War, searching for any available next of kin might be impossible.
“You could spend 100 hours getting a next of kin, and it might be a 32nd cousin in California,” said Roy Ash, Washington County Veterans Service officer. “Whoever (made the change) didn’t think it through. You have to deal with cases on a case-by-case basis.”
Ash said he has gone to the VA when the search for a next of kin yielded none. For example, the New Matamoras Veterans of Foreign Wars could not find any descendants for a particular veteran. Ash said he stepped in and contacted the VA on its behalf and was able to secure the necessary grave marker.
Washington County Commissioner Ron Feathers recently requested a new flag holder for the grave of his maternal great-great-grandfather, John Wellspring (1819-1896), who served in Company H of the 1st Ohio Light Artillery. Wellspring was wounded in the Battle of Chancelorsville, April 30 through May 6, 1863, in Virginia. The holder had seen better days. It was weathered and had turned green. Feathers received a new holder Wednesday and installed it at Wellspring’s grave in Putnam Cemetery in Devola.
“It’s important for current generations not to forget the sacrifices and lives lived of our forefathers,” Feathers said. “When we forget where we came from we have no idea where we are going.”
Jean Yost, president of the Marietta Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution, said he thinks the law needs some tweaking.
“Its not a bad idea to get a next of kin involved,” Yost said. “The generation today can find ancestors for most people; however, they can make exceptions for … if you tried your best to get an ancestor, then there is a way (to get a headstone or flag holder).”
Yost said the SAR is working on documents for about 200 men they think are patriots.
Another important factor in researching unmarked graves is the risk that another person might be doing the same research. To reduce duplicate requests, Scott Britton, the director of The Castle and a member of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, supports leaving it up to groups such as the SAR or DAR.
“An easier way to control the process … is to have specific group or groups handle it,” Britton said. “There won’t be duplication of efforts.”
In some cases, however, duplication leads to a touchy situation. Britton said some families rely on fading memories and stories as documented information and attempt to get markers for graves that don’t exist in their location.
Groups such as the SAR or DAR do a lot of research on graves of veterans to be certain of all the facts before it is presented to the VA for a tombstone or other marker, Britton said.
Republican Congressman Steven Stivers, R-Ohio, is sponsoring a bill in the House to change the policy of who can request a marker, allowing anyone to request a marker for a deceased veteran who served at least 62 years before the date on the requested marker or tombstone.
The Associated Press contributed.