State opens bids to repair muddy graves of veterans

Plots for servicemen suffer from erosion, lack of headstones

June 07, 2000|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

The state opened bids yesterday to have more than 1,000 muddy graves in the Garrison Forest Veterans Cemetery seeded with grass and graded to correct erosion.

Workers there blamed understaffing for deteriorating conditions at the state-owned cemetery in northwest Baltimore County, where 18,000 veterans and their relatives are buried.

Chris Hobbs, assistant secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs, said a bid would be awarded today to make emergency improvements to the cemetery, where 1,400 Maryland veterans and their spouses are buried each year.

The improvements were ordered by Gov. Parris N. Glendening in response to a Sun article May 24 that described grassless graves surrounded by weeds, ruts created by rainfall and hundreds of temporary grave markers that have yet to be replaced by permanent granite gravestones.

Yesterday, Mike Morrill, the governor's director of communications, said the emergency contract will be awarded to correct problems in a 4-acre parcel where the newest graves sit in mud.

The contractor will be required to lay a mulch-type base on the soil and seed the area beginning Friday.

"They expect they will have grass, not full turf, growing by July 4," Morrill said, adding that the governor plans to visit to view the progress.

"I'd like to grow grass overnight, but I'm very confident they are moving forward very aggressively to improve conditions," he said.

The graves in poor condition belong to veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam and their spouses.

Since the article appeared, the state has hired temporary workers to replace 322 temporary markers with headstones, said Hobbs.

But conditions remained poor as of yesterday, a rainy day that marked the 56th anniversary of D-Day, the invasion to liberate Europe from the Nazis.

Yesterday, the six-member grounds crew working at the cemetery complained that understaffing has contributed to maintenance problems. They said their staff used to be twice the size a decade ago.

"I take pride in my job," said Gary Keller, a Vietnam veteran who has worked at the cemetery since 1991. He said the grounds workers are often the ones who hear complaints from relatives of people buried there.

"We've had people cuss us out and threaten us, but we can only do what we can do," he said. "I'm the first to agree it don't look perfect."

Keller and others in the crew said they are responsible for maintaining all the graves, as well as burying up to eight people a day in the cemetery, one of the busiest in the state. "We have six men to maintain 91 acres. It's physically impossible," said another worker, Glenn Parker, whose parents are buried in the cemetery.

The workers also complained about poor equipment, including a 10-year-old pickup truck that has bald tires and a door tied shut with rope. The truck is used to carry coffins from hearses to the grave.

Yesterday, Hobbs said the crew will get a new truck this summer. The staff vacancies are due, in part, to the state's cost-saving plans to contract out two positions to a private company in July for mowing and trimming. Those jobs remain unfilled.

During yesterday's rain, Greg Brady visited the grave of his mother, Helen R. Brady, on the first anniversary of her death at 69.

Her grave was at the bottom of a weed-covered slope that was deteriorating from erosion.

"This erosion will do nothing but get worse," said Brady, a steelworker from Harford County.

Dennis Rebok, a Vietnam veteran who is a member of the executive board of Maryland's American Legion, said he was pleased to hear that the contract for repairs was about to be awarded.

"Why did they wait until all the bad publicity?" he said. "Why didn't they do this all along?"

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