Veterans finally get headstones

Winters Cemetery District attempt to get headstones for unmarked graves of veterans.
This headstone marks the grave of veteran J. Lawrence Martinez, who finally got a headstone this year at the Winters Cemetery. Photo by Debra DeAngelo

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It was Memorial Day of last year when the Express editor was covering the annual services and wandering through the cemetery, observing the many little American flags fluttering over the graves of those who served their country that she noticed a curious thing: Some of the flags fluttered over graves without any headstone, and this did not sit well with her.

She contacted a member of the Winters Cemetery Board of Directors, Joe Bristow, and alerted him to this slight. Bristow in turn went to the board, and the wheels slowly started turning to right this wrong.

Fast forward to May of this year. When Memorial Day services take place, three of those unmarked graves will have headstones. They belong to Clarence H. Waughtel (1890-1919), Thorne C. Renfro (1934-1992) and J. Lawrence Martinez (1952-2009). Sheila Carbahal, district manager for the Winters Cemetery District, explains that it wasn’t as simple as it might seem to get a headstone for a veteran’s grave. First, an effort must be made to locate any surviving family members, and if located, they must agree to placing the headstone there.

Although the Veteran’s Administration will pay for bronze grave markers for veterans, there’s a stipulation: a DD214 form, indicating an honorable discharge, usually given at the time of discharge. Trouble is, there needs to be a family member to either locate that form in the old family file cabinet or apply for a copy of that form from the VA. Carbahal says there’s often just no one to do this, particularly World War I veterans and earlier.

Sometimes, she explains, the Cemetery District may know that a veteran is buried in a family plot, and several graves are unmarked, and no one is left to sort it all out. In that case, the when the local Veterans of Foreign Wars places the little flags on the graves each Memorial Day, they just do their best and plant a flag in the plot — that’s as close as they can get.

Without a VA-funded plaque or surviving family members to pay for them, the cemetery board decided to get started funding some small, simple headstones that cost $85 apiece, and place them where they could — on three graves this year. She says the district didn’t really have extra funding for this, so the board voted to use some money in a public funds account, which is usually earmarked for “outside services.”

Carbahal is pleased that some progress was made in marking all the veterans’ graves, but notes there is still more to be done. The district is still attempting to verify the location of each veteran’s grave so there’s a record. The unmarked ones, however, remain an outstanding concern for all who believe no veteran should be laid to rest without a headstone.

“It’s sad that some of them are forgotten,” says Carbahal. “I think every veteran should be recognized for their service.”

The Winters Cemetery District, board of directors and members of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) make sure that come Memorial Day each year, those who served are remembered and honored, with speeches, music, a rifle salute, and a little fluttering flag at each grave.

This year’s Memorial Day services are planned for Monday, May 28, at 10 a.m. Everyone in the community is welcome to attend, and honor the men and women who fought and served to protect the United States and her allies.

When services conclude, all are invited to walk the cemetery and reflect on the sacrifice made by those whose graves are marked by little American flags — and maybe spend a little extra time at the unmarked graves where they fly as well. None should be forgotten.






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