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Restoring honor

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When Jordan Houghton stopped for a closer look at Evergreen Washelli Cemetery in northwest Seattle in April, he was surprised to find the veterans’ headstones covered in road grime, moss and other debris. So the former combat medic and Afghanistan war veteran mobilized members of William C. Stacey American Legion Post 206 in Seattle.

Using power washers, brushes and backbreaking labor, these Legionnaires are going row by row, headstone by headstone, restoring this sea of white markers. By late June, a handful of volunteers had cleaned nearly 2,000 of some 5,000 veteran headstones. It’s slow going, Houghton acknowledges, but speed is not the objective. “There’s no point in doing it quickly and not doing it well,” he says.

Families of the fallen are noticing their work.

“It really meant a lot to me to see what you were doing – straight from my heart,” Naomi Sexton wrote in a thank-you note that included a newspaper clipping and vintage pictures of her brother, Doyle Smith, who was killed in the Korean War in September 1950 while helping a wounded comrade. Other families have stopped to thank The American Legion volunteers in person when they are out cleaning headstones.

Evergreen Washelli officials say Post 206’s offer of help came just as cemetery staff was dealing with equipment breakdowns and the month-long push to get the grounds in order for Memorial Day ceremonies. “It was really great that Jordan reached out to us,” says Brenda Spicer McCoy, cemetery office manager. “There was no way we were going to get to the markers.”

The cemetery was established in 1884. General Manager Clinton Harley, a Spanish American War veteran, set aside a large section for veterans and spouses in 1927. The cemetery board’s goal was to make it the “Arlington of the West,” according to the Evergreen Washelli website. The American Legion donated a flagpole and the body of World War I veteran Thomas McElderry was reinterred here as part of the cemetery’s 1927 Memorial Day ceremony, an annual event that continues today.

Although the 5,000 plots in the veteran’s section were filled about a decade ago, families continue to bury loved ones who served in the military in other sections of the cemetery. All told, there are more than 8,000 servicemembers at Evergreen Washelli.

Cleaning their headstones provides members of Post 206 a connection to their brothers and sisters in arms. Houghton was struck to find the headstone of a World War I Army nurse, who may be one of the first females to serve in combat, as well as a soldier who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Joey Hernandez feels a bit of kinship when he’s scrubbing the markers of fellow Navy combat veterans and he’s been captivated by the stories of the Medal of Honor recipients buried here.

The project also helps fulfill Post 206’s community service focus and determination to defy stereotypes about The American Legion. “I want people to know that we’re not just sitting around sulking and drinking,” says Hernandez, who serves as senior vice commander as he juggles two day jobs, college and family. “We’re out trying to make a difference for veterans and for our community.”

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Did you know?

A veteran’s family must request a United States flag.

A flag is provided at no cost to drape the casket or accompany the urn of a deceased veteran. Generally, the flag is given to the next of kin. Only one flag may be provided per veteran. Upon the request of the family, an “Application for United States Flag for Burial Purposes” (VA Form 21-2008) must be submitted along with a copy of the veteran’s discharge papers. Flags may be obtained from VA regional offices and most U.S. Post Offices.