`An insult to the veterans'

Neglect: Visitors are distraught over condition of gravesites in some parts of state-run Baltimore County cemetery.

May 24, 2000|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

When visitors come to the Garrison Forest Veterans Cemetery in Baltimore County for Monday's observance of Memorial Day, they might find their relatives' gravestones set in bare dirt, surrounded by weeds or even sinking so far into the mud their names are unreadable.

More than 1,000 veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam and their spouses are buried in areas with poor drainage, no grass, weeds growing out of control and deep ruts created by rain.

"It's appalling. It's an insult to the veterans who are buried here," said Dennis Rebok, a Vietnam veteran on the executive board of Maryland's American Legion.

Yesterday, as he stood in the mud, viewing hundreds of gravesites in the state-owned cemetery, he said, "It looks like a construction site. It doesn't look like a graveyard."

Most of the graves in poor condition belong to veterans and spouses who died in the past two years.

The rest of the 91-acre cemetery off Garrison Forrest Road in northwest Baltimore County - where 18,000 veterans and their relatives from across Maryland have been buried since 1983 - appears to be well maintained.

But the newest sections appear neglected, and even disintegrating in some parts.

One gravestone had sunk so low that mud covered the name of Robert L. Oliver, a U.S. Navy veteran from World War II, who died April 16, 1999. And most of those who were buried in the past seven months have no gravestones and are only marked with small temporary note cards under plastic, such as the one for William Pugh Sr. , who died in February at 79.

When Janice Yingling of Carroll County and her daughter recently visited the graves of her parents, who died in a car accident three years ago, she said she was shocked by the poor conditions.

"The veterans need better treatment than they are getting there. The ones from Vietnam were treated badly when they returned. Now in death they're treated badly too," said Yingling, whose father, Alexander Falls, is buried at the cemetery because he was a World War II veteran.

Yingling's daughter, Roberta Holland, said she spoke with a woman who was visiting the grave of her twin brother, who was killed in Kosovo.

"The woman had a pair of children's scissors. She was crying and clipping the weeds" around her brother's grave, Holland said.

Chris Hobbs, assistant secretary for the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs, which oversees the cemetery, said: "We understand conditions are substandard and are cause for concern from relatives."

She attributed the lack of grass around the new graves to poor soil conditions, last summer's drought and Hurricane Floyd. "It's been an ongoing attempt to establish turf in those areas," she said, adding that the state is working with a lawn-care organizationto improve soil conditions and establish turf around the graves.

Compounding problems at the newer gravesites is the absence of headstones to mark graves as old as seven months.

Kenneth McKisset, who supervises the cemetery's grounds crew, acknowledged yesterday that "we're a little behind" in placing stones on graves.

He said the snowy winter and rainy spring prevented his crews from placing stones on ground that needs to be graded first to prevent the stones from sinking.

"What the general public does not understand is the headstone weighs 130 pounds of solid granite. In wet conditions my men have to carry these stones in by hand. We put the headstones out every chance we get," he said.

In addition, Hobbs said, her department has had trouble recruiting and keeping grounds and maintenance staff for jobs with starting salaries at $16,000 a year.

On a recent visit to the cemetery, brightly colored Mother's Day decorations and artificial flowers could be seen propped up in the mud next to temporary grave markers. In one sloping area, deep ruts had formed between graves where rain had washed away soil.

A handful of gravestones had sunk in the mud, forming a shallow trench where some of the names of the dead could not be read.

"That's a grading problem. We'll have to do something about that," said Gene Fleming, superintendent of the cemetery.

Yesterday, Rebok wandered through the cemetery, his feet sinking into the mud as he viewed the decaying conditions.

"This one's about to float away," the veteran said, pointing to a gravestone what was partially unearthed as a rut formed underneath from recent rainfall.

Nearby Sharon Gudenius and her husband, George, were visiting the graves of her parents, who died in the past year.

She was surprised there was no grass growing, even though it will be a year Monday -- Memorial Day - since the death of her father, Andrew Gallik. He served in the Army during World War II.

"This section is so neglected," said the Linthicum woman, who was also distressed to see her father's gravestone had broken.

"Somebody has to speak up for these people," she said looking out over the thousands of graves. "They can't speak up themselves."

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