Members of American Legion Riders Chapter 55 in Martin, Tenn., are working to right what they feel is a wrong. Long-term, however, the Riders hope what they’re doing leads to change on a grander scale.
Chapter 55 is covering the costs of installing Department of Veterans Affairs-provided foot markers on the graves of veterans buried in Weakley County, Tenn. Chapter 55 Director Jackie Laird said area funeral homes have accumulated several of these markers, some having been stored for as long as 40 years. The markers normally take around three months to arrive at the funeral home after being ordered from VA; Laird said the funeral home says it’s up to the family to ask for the marker.
Laird said he’d heard that funeral homes in the area had the markers in storage and began investigating. “I came to find out it was true,” he said. “The reason is (the funeral homes) order them from the (Department of Veterans Affairs), and for some reason they’re staying in the funeral homes. The last bit of respect you can pay the veterans is to put his foot marker down.”
But what kick-started the project was after Chapter 55 Chaplain Elton Wilkerson had a conversation with the son of a Martin resident buried in East Side Cemetery in Martin. Wilkerson found out the family had been given a price tag of $275 to install the foot marker on the veteran’s grave.
Wilkerson told the veteran’s son that The American Legion would cover the cost of the installation. “(The son) thought we were scamming him,” Laird said. “We gave him some people to contact to make sure that we were legitimate. Once he found out we were legitimate he was more than happy for us to do this. He was very grateful that we put his father’s foot marker down. He passed in 1994.”
Chapter 55 went through a lawyer to get forms drawn up to allow the funeral homes to turn the markers over to the Riders and the family to let the Riders install them at the gravesite.
The chapter doesn’t charge families anything to provide the service but when word of their efforts got out, they began receiving donations. Families who have had foot markers placed also have donated to the Riders’ cause. Laird said the chapter also will fundraise if it needs to so that families that cannot afford to have the foot markers placed on the grave can fall back on the Riders for help.
A local granite company, Quality Kitchens & Baths, has offered to cut the granite for below cost. It’s allowed for the chapter to install the markers for approximately $40 each. “We’ve gotten in touch with about a half dozen people since last year,” Laird said. “I’ve got a call this week to put two more down.
“We just want funeral homes and families to be aware that they are there. We want to get them cleared out of these funeral homes. Sitting there for 40 years is unacceptable. Every funeral home in Weakley County has these (markers). And I bet every funeral home across the nation has these.”
Laird said honoring veterans is a priority of the Riders. Last year Chapter 55 was instrumental in the erecting of a memorial in Palmersville that honors the nine crewmembers killed in a U.S. Army B-17 crash in the area in 1943.
“It took us 20 months to get that monument built, but we do get it done,” Laird said. “I heard a few years ago that a soldier dies twice: once on the battlefield or in the hospital or wherever he takes his last breath, and he dies again when he’s forgotten. This is something we’ve tried to address and show respect where we could.”