May 24, 2016


Changes would make it easier to obtain headstones, markers for unidentified graves of soldiers

CLEVELAND — A U.S. Senate bill that would make it easier to get headstones for historic unmarked veterans’ graves has drawn support from historians in Ohio.

Senators Rob Portman, R-Ohio and Jon Tester, D-Mont., recently introduced a bipartisan bill to enable veterans’ service agencies, military researchers, historians or genealogists to request free headstones or markers from the Department of Veterans Affairs for veterans’ graves. The VA previously provided headstones for unmarked graves based on documentation of a veteran’s identity and service provided by those groups or individuals. But a 2012 policy change limited requests to veterans’ next-of-kin or authorized family representatives.

Historians and veterans groups say the change makes it more difficult to get markers for graves sometimes dating back more than a century, The Plain Dealer reported.

The Portman-Tester bill matches a similar measure introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives last year by Rep. Steve Stivers, an Ohio Republican.

“This bipartisan legislation is a common-sense way to honor the men and women who have worn the uniform throughout our nation’s history with the official recognition they have earned and deserve,” Portman said in a statement.

The Ohio History Connection worked to research and identify military veterans buried in unmarked graves before the policy change, according to Todd Kleismit, the organization’s director of community and government relations.

“We hope that this legislation can help us get back to that important work that has been postponed now for the past couple of years,” he said.

The VA has said the change was intended to discourage someone from marking a veteran’s grave without descendants’ knowledge or consent.

Bill Stark, a volunteer archivist and member of the Woodland Cemetery Foundation in Cleveland, said he has documented and obtained nearly 200 headstones for veterans’ graves. But he said there are dozens of unmarked graves in the area, including graves of Civil War veterans that he could request headstones for if the policy was changed.

“There’s nothing we can do about it unless a descendant wants to sign a form, but we don’t know who they are, if there are any at all,” he said.