Guardsmen ‘Restore Respect’ to veterans during cemetery project
By MSgt Thomas Kielbasa, FLNG Public Affairs
/ Published July 10, 2014
ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. (July 9, 2014) - Time and neglect may have ravaged one of Florida's oldest African-American cemeteries, but a group of National Guard Airmen have stepped in to help clean up this historic burial ground and "restore respect" to the vete -- For the past year members of the Florida National Guard have volunteered their time and resources to clear brush, trim weeds, and remove trash from the San Sebastian Cemetery in West St. Augustine. The predominately African-American cemetery - along with the adjoining Pinehurst Cemetery - fell into disrepair over the years: broken or hidden tombstones, overgrown plots, thick patches of brush, and collapsing vaults were commonplace.
Lt. Col. Teresa Frank and her family have led the Air Guard cleanup project since May 2013, and since then have worked with various other groups and organizations to repair the dilapidated cemetery. Frank, a member of the 125th Fighter Wing in Jacksonville, said her involvement really began as a way to "remember the real reason" for Memorial Day.
"We were looking for something to do on Memorial Day weekend last year to teach the kids that it is more than just parties and barbeque and going to the beach," Frank said during a clean-up event at the cemetery on May 24, 2014.
After seeing a notice about a previous cleanup effort at San Sebastian, Frank and her family began volunteering their time clearing brush and cutting thick patches of weeds in the cemetery. Over the past year other volunteers from the community and the Florida National Guard have joined them in the effort. Using mostly handtools and weedtrimmers to clear the out-of-control plants and bushes, they are careful not to damage the numerous headstones scattered throughout the cemetery. The work can be exhausting, and the volunteers often encounter carpenter bees, ants, poison ivy, stinging nettles, and snakes.
"Cemeteries used to be places where people would go and remember their loved-ones and actually have picnics," Frank said. "Society has changed a lot, so they are now seen as dark and scary places. That is not what is meant to be."
She pointed out that few people visit San Sebastian or Pinehurst, and many of the graves are unmarked. During their forays into the undergrowth of the cemetery the volunteers have cleared out several "lost" graves, and so far have identified the burial plots of 48 veterans. Two of those plots are from soldiers who served with the 103rd U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment shortly before the end of the Civil War.
Although they've given the project the military moniker of "Operation Restore Respect," the effort is not just for the veterans buried in the cemetery: it is a way to remember the history of everyone who is buried there. Frank said she hopes that the local community will take an active role in keeping the cemetery manicured after their project is complete.
"I would hope that somebody would care enough to take care of not only my grave site, but my friends and family members around me," she said. "That is why we are not just focusing on the veterans."
While carefully trimming around a deteriorating headstone, St. Augustine resident and 125th Fighter Wing crew chief Staff Sgt. Bruce Andrews said the project is a meaningful way to honor the veterans and their families buried there.
"This is a great thing. A lot of these people would just be forgotten...these Soldiers and Airmen," Andrews said. "Hopefully someday somebody won't forget me."
Master Sgt. Slychet Stone, 125th Fighter Wing Personnel Systems Manager, sees the project as a way to honor those African-American veterans whose service helped forge and strengthen today's military.
"It is important for me to be out here, because as an African-American in the Air Force these are the people that fought for me to come in," Stone said, while raking piles of dead leaves and branches from a plot. "The sacrifices that they made have made it easier for me in my military career because they did the struggle for me. It is important for me to give back."
Willie Cooper Sr., president of the West Augustine Improvement Association explained that the previous owner of the cemetery passed away and the land was deeded to his organization to help maintain. He said the main concerns are the constant overgrowth and the fact there is no good site map for the headstones. Some of the graves are well marked with legible headstones, but in some cases the headstones are actually buried in the soil and hidden.
Cooper said volunteers from organizations like the Florida Air National Guard and the local Home Depot are really helping fix that problem through their hard work and diligence.
"I think we are getting a handle on getting it cleaned and trying to identify where all the graves are," Cooper said.
Even the future generation of the Florida Air National Guard participated in preserving the honor of the "past" generation of servicemembers buried in the cemetery. Jonathan Harriel, a member of the 125th Fighter Wing Student Flight who hasn't yet been to basic training, volunteered his time on May 24 and helped clear weeds from the plots on the east end of San Sebastian. Harriel said he saw the announcement for volunteers on the Florida Air National Guard's Facebook page, and drove down from Jacksonville for the day to help restore the graves of "these heroes."
"It is great here seeing all of this history," Harriel said. "I think it is awesome."
If you are interested in supporting Operation Restore Respect, please contact Lt. Col. Teresa Frank at Teresa.email@example.com.