Mr. Paul LaRue
Chairman Runyan and members of the Subcommittee:
It is an honor to provide information to the committee as it relates to dignified burials for our military veterans. My name is Paul LaRue, and I am a high school history teacher in Washington Court House, Ohio , about fifty miles southwest of Columbus. I would like to provide testimony in support of H.R. 2018. In 2001, I was showing my history class a section of our local cemetery where several African American Civil War Veterans are buried. After observing the condition of the veteran’s headstones, one of my students said, “Don’t these men deserve better?” (Exhibits # 1 and #2.) With that simple question my students and I decided to help get these forgotten heroes the final tribute they had earned. We began with the help of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ headstone policy (circa 2002), and our local cemetery superintendent, a Vietnam War veteran. The students researched and ordered headstones for the veterans with unmarked graves. In the spring of 2002 my students began the process of installing the new VA headstones, as well as lifting, straightening, and cleaning the existing headstones (exhibit #3 and #4.) My students’ teamwork and enthusiasm for the project was amazing. On May 22nd 2002 we had a dedication ceremony for the newly rejuvenated Soldier’s Row. These students were seniors, and wanted to complete this project before their graduation. Though a little over ten years ago, I have run into some of my old students, who can state with pride which headstone they helped install. One of my students discovered that his great, great grandfather was born a slave and served in the Union army before moving to our community to raise his family. This section of our cemetery has gone from looking sad and neglected, to being a source of pride for our community (exhibits # 5 and #6.)
Following the success of this project, my students and I have been invited to several other cemeteries to help mark the graves of veterans with unmarked graves. The spring of 2013 my students and I traveled to Beech Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati at the request of Carl Westmoreland, senior historian at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. For the second year in a row my students had researched, ordered, and installed headstones for African American veterans with unmarked graves. Jason Dominguez, Assistant Director at the Ohio Department of Veterans Services, joined my students to help install and properly recognize these forgotten heroes (exhibits # 7 and #8.) Luckily, we had ordered these headstones before the VA began enforcing its new next of kin policy.
My students have researched, ordered, and installed over seventy veterans’ headstones in five cemeteries in southern Ohio. I have been in the classroom since 1985, and have won numerous state and national teaching awards, including recognition from The History Channel for our work marking Veterans graves. The success of this project and its lasting impact on students, military veterans, and the community is what I am most proud.
The change in the Department of Veterans Affairs’ headstone policy, though well intentioned, has created negative consequences for underserved veteran populations by requiring lineal descendants only to request headstones. Often Veterans began their lives in slavery or as immigrants to this country (exhibits #9 and #10 , taken from a lesson plan I completed for the Civil War Trust,) so lineal descendants are impossible to identify, if any exist. The type of projects my students and I, as well as many other groups around the country, have undertaken will no longer be possible. Over the years my students and I have developed a core belief: “All veterans regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or gender should have a headstone, “(exhibit #11.) As one of my students asked on that day in our local cemetery over a dozen years ago, “Don’t these men deserve better?” The answer is yes, they do; please support H.R. 2018. Thank you.
Soldiers Row before reconstruction (exhibit #1 and #2)
Students reconstruct Soldiers Row (exhibits #3 and #4)
Soldiers Row completed (exhibit #5 and #6)
Students working at Beech Grove Cemetery 2013 (exhibits #7 and #8)
Students and community activists at Beech Grove Cemetery