CLEVELAND, Ohio – The recent introduction of a bipartisan bill by U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Jon Tester (D-Montana) to provide headstones for historic unmarked veterans graves came as welcome news to state and local historians.
The "Honor Those Who Served Act of 2014" would enable veterans service agencies, military researchers, historians or genealogists to request a free headstone or marker from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for a veteran's grave.
Until 2012 the VA provided headstones for unmarked veterans' graves based on documentation of that vet's identity and service provided by these groups or individuals.
The Portman-Tester bill matches a similar measure introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives last year by Rep. Steve Stivers, a Columbus Republican.
Portman said in a news release, "This bipartisan legislation is a common-sense way to honor the men and women who have worn the uniform throughout our nation's history with the official recognition they have earned and deserve."
Todd Kleismit, director of community and government relations at the Ohio History Connection, also commented in the release, "Prior to the VA's policy change, organizations like ours had been working diligently to research and recognize military veterans buried in unmarked graves.
"We hope that this legislation can help us get back to that important work that has been postponed now for the past couple of years," he added.
Last year the VA said the policy is intended to discourage someone from marking a veteran's grave in a way that the descendants may not want or even know about. A spokesperson added that the VA was reviewing that policy.
But Bill Stark, a volunteer archivist with the Cleveland Grays and member of the Woodland Cemetery Foundation who has documented and obtained nearly 200 headstones for veterans' graves in area cemeteries, said the next-of-kin requirement still stands. "The VA hasn't moved on this at all," he said.
There are dozens of unmarked veterans graves in the area that he could request headstones for, but "I haven't tried because I know it (the request) would be rejected," he said.
Stark noted that in a section of Cleveland's Woodland Cemetery containing the graves of black Civil War veterans, there are a number of unmarked graves.
"There's nothing we can do about it unless a descendant wants to sign a form, but we don't know who they are, if there are any at all," he added.
He was encouraged by introduction of the Portman-Tester bill. "It's an excellent sign. I'm glad now because it's covered in the Senate," Stark said. "Both of these legislators seem to be very interested in getting this done. At this point, I'm optimistic."
However, being a self-described "pessimist by nature," Stark added, "If we're still talking about this next year, it wouldn't surprise me."
He told a story illustrating how seriously this matter can still be viewed by some veterans' families.
He was contacted last year by a man in South Dakota whose great-great grandfatrher had fought in the Civil War, then came to Cleveland where he died and was buried in the Monroe Street Cemetery.
Stark said the man was a serious genealogist – "as tenacious as a pit bull" -- and was able to provide the VA with documentation showing his family relationship, and obtain a VA headstone for the grave.
He drove to Cleveland to see the grave marker installed. Stark said the man stood there, then addressed his distant relative by his first name, saying, "John, you couldn't hide from me."
It's that important.
"Oh, definitely," Stark said.