05/28/07 — Volunteers remember veterans as part of cleanup at cemetery

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Volunteers remember veterans as part of cleanup at cemetery

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on May 28, 2007 1:45 PM

A project to clean up a neglected cemetery also included an effort to make sure local veterans are never forgotten.

Yvonne Stanley and Evelyn Shepard joined forces to unearth graves and headstones in the former Lightner Cemetery in the Mar Mac community. Ms. Stanley lives nearby, and Ms. Shepard's brother, Van Allen, who died in the Korean War, was buried there.

Nestled at the end of Bryan Boulevard, a neighborhood virtually uninhabited since the flood that followed Hurricane Floyd, the cemetery is now owned and maintained by the county. Officials allowed the women to take on the project last month and they in turn promptly enlisted the help of anyone willing.

Their goal, in addition to sprucing up the overgrown property, was to make sure flags marked the grave of every veteran come Memorial Day.

"Doors have just been opening up, with helpers and response," Ms. Stanley said recently, ticking off a list of names and organizations that have rallied.

Jack Bennett of adjacent Busco Beach loaned them chain saws for the land clearing. A&K Grading in LaGrange helped pick up debris, and Woodmen of the World donated flags for the graves.

And then there were the volunteers. Seymour Johnson Air Force Base men and women came out, as did several from the 90-day probation and parole program known as DART Cherry.

The arduous task entailed cutting down bushes and trees, chopping through gnarled vines, raking and hauling away the brush.

"We aren't even halfway there yet, and they have already carried off five loads or more of the undergrowth," Ms. Stanley said. "We're going to keep on it."

By the weekend, 14 veterans from World Wars I and II and the Korean War had been identified, Ms. Stanley said, with 200 others still unidentified.

"I won't be surprised if we go over 300 unmarked graves," she said.

But that does not mean the volunteers' work will slow down.

"If we don't get all these by Memorial Day, we'll do it next year and recognize them. And we'll keep on doing that as long as I live," Ms. Stanley said.

Makeshift ceremonies were held on Friday, when some of the volunteers gathered in a circle before placing flags on the graves. Terry Johnson, general manager of Christian TV station WHFL, led the group in prayer.

The television station's tower is near the property, Johnson said, which is how he initially learned about the cleanup project.

"I have passed by 10, 12 years and didn't know there was a cemetery here," he said. "I came by recently and saw the orange flag markers. I thought something was going on down by the woods."

Stephanie Rose of the probation and parole program contacted Ms. Stanley after reading about the project in the News-Argus. She said she thought it might make a good community service project for the men in her program. For the past several weeks, she and probation officer Steve Roman have brought groups down there to work.

By some standards, the situation would be described as less than ideal. Roman said the men encountered fire ants, poison oak, two snakes -- one already dead -- and two ticks. Not to mention an abundance of challenging manual labor.

And yet it turned out to be good therapy for the men, Ms. Rose said.

"They look forward to coming, for a day a week for about four or five hours," she said. "It has made the biggest change in these guys, in their attitude.

"We have a prayer every day when they leave here, praying for their recovery and their addictions. It's made a big difference, more than I imagined."

Scott Royal, 30, from Denton called the project a very positive thing.

"It's meant a lot to me to come out here to give back to the fellows who died for us. It's a good experience to give back to the community as well," he said.

George Odom, 48, of Dunn, nicknamed "Chainsaw" by Ms. Stanley since he previously did that for a living, was given that task around the cemetery.

"I'm very proud to be a part of this project, to be so meaningful to people," he said. "It makes me feel good, nice, proud."

"We like coming out here to work," said 19-year-old Gentry Fowler of Wilmington. "It's just sad that this whole cemetery has gotten overgrown. It feels good to come out here and clean it up where families of these people can come out here and see their loved ones."

The work will continue until the entire property is cleared, Ms. Stanley said. A new fence is also needed and there is still work to be done before it is safe enough for others to visit.

"When it's cleaned up and where we feel safe about it, we'll welcome the public to come in and go see their family members," she said. "We're not going to have it closed. It's been closed too long."