IMMOKALEE, Fla. - The "Grave Detail" for members of VFW Post 7369 was supposed to be a standard job. They had to clean up and clean off about a dozen headstones for veterans buried at Lake Trafford Memorial Gardens. But, the detail found out the potter's field with broken markers, mounds of sand and bricks scattered around had more secrets in store.
"We got out here expecting to find a few, there's 40-something," said Commander Ed Messer. "They're pretty neglected and they've been forgotten."
"David Christerson ..
"Its just a disgrace," said VFW member David Christerson. "A veteran when he dies, somebody should take care of him. Take care of the grave."
On Veterans day of 2013, the Grave Detail went to work. They mowed grass, straightened up and went to the county for plot numbers. But, it wasn't just neglect that had the members upset.
"We have no idea who's there," said VFW member Edward Swank.
At least a dozen or more graves are unmarked. The Department of Veterans Affairs recently changed its policy. It now prohibits anyone but the veterans' family from applying for a marker.
"So if they've got no next of kin or if the next of kin has died then that veteran is going to go unidentified forever!," said Swank.
"If we have it here, then its gonna be all over the place," said Christerson.
Now, the Grave Detail has a new battle to fight, getting that policy changed.
We're gonna do right by them," said Messer. "Make sure they're not forgotten."
Wink News contacted the Department of Veterans Affairs. A spokesperson sent us this statement:
VA previously accepted and processed headstone/marker claims submitted by others than the next of kin. That practice ended with the July 1, 2009 implementation of a new policy found in Title 38 of the Code of Federal Regulations. The regulation defines an applicant for a marker as the decedent's next of kin, a person authorized in writing by the next of kin, or a personal representative authorized in writing by the decedent to apply for a government-furnished headstone or marker. An individual who bears no relation to the deceased Veteran does not qualify as an authorized applicant, unless authorized in writing by the next of kin or the deceased Veteran. This regulatory definition is intended to avoid the possibility that a person lacking any familial relationship to the Veteran could alter the Veteran's gravesite in a manner not desired by the Veteran's family.
VA realizes, however, that the definition may be too limiting, and is reviewing the regulation that includes the applicant definition. Any changes would be made through a proposed rule and would enable the public to provide input through the notice and public comment procedures.