Dona Ana, N.M. – As Memorial Day rolls around, a group of veterans are making it their mission to refurbish an historic cemetery with graves from the Civil War and Mexican American War.
Before the group began its work, the cemetery was overgrown with mesquite bush and sagebrush. But in 2013, Peter Stone was scouting locations for a feature film and walked up next to the cemetery and saw a small metal angel, crosses, and gravestones in the bushes. That sparked the idea for him to refurbish the cemetery.
“It was a cemetery that time forgot. And when you look at the markers, and the era of the dates that they birth and the dates that they died. We’re standing on history,” said Stone, a motion picture location scout and army veteran.
This year, Stone and a team of volunteers, who are largely veterans, got to work. They removed the bushes and brush and refurbished some of the tombstones.
Research led them to find some of the buried were members of Teddy Roosevelt’s Dragoons, a mounted Calvary division. Some of those graves are completely dilapidated and unidentifiable.
“It hurt, to see all these veterans disrespected. I didn’t like it at all,” said Robert Richie, commander of American Legion Post 10 and an army veteran.
The effort took a massive leap forward when almost 200 volunteers gathered in April as part of a joint effort between the local Fox and CBS TV stations. The volunteers got more done in a day then the team had finished all year.
“People do care. We reached out and they responded. We’re not done yet but some honor and respect has been paid to our heroes from yesteryear,” Stone said.
Now all the veterans’ graves have American flags and spotlights so they’re visible at night.
The group also has further plans for the future. They hope to get a statue and flagpole placed in the center of the cemetery and build a fence built along the perimeter.
Volunteers are optimistic they can arrange a formal ceremony with a color guard, taps and a flyover.
“So people can come out here and realize they aren’t just a bunch of old stones covered in mesquite bushes. It’s part of our history,” said Dona Ana County Commissioner John Vasquez, who is also a veteran.
He estimates it could take up to two years to finish the project, depending on the number of volunteers and the money their effort receives.