Preserving the legacy of Veterans buried in unmarked graves


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Toni Craig, Larisa Roderick and Paul LaRue. These are the names of people who cared enough to preserve the legacy of Veterans interred in unmarked graves by obtaining headstones or markers from VA’s National Cemetery Administration (NCA).

An unmarked gravesite has no permanent headstone or any way to identify the decedent buried in the grave.

Toni Craig visits her cousin Harry Martin’s grave.

For Craig, a special education world history teacher in Martinsville, Va., her quest was to obtain a marker for her cousin, Pfc. Harry Pemberton Martin, a Marine and Purple Heart recipient from the Vietnam War. He laid in an unmarked grave for 52-years.

Craig started her research in November 2019 with an obituary that her mother gave her. That search included working the Virginia Department of Veterans Affairs in Danville, which allowed her to obtain all the necessary documentation to receive a flat marker. Martin now lays at Meadow Christian Church Cemetery in Martinsville.

“Harry is a hero to my family because he did not have to go to Vietnam. He served his time in the Navy, but decided to join the Marines after,” she said. He was awarded a Purple Heart for his service, but to us his heart was and still is golden.”

This action (of preserving the legacy of Veterans who lay in unmarked gravesites) happens all across the country. A June 2019 story on clickorlando.com shows how concerned resident Larisa Roderick secured 61 headstones for Union Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II Veterans buried at Mt. Peace Cemetery in St. Cloud, Fla.

Retired Ohio high school teacher, Paul LaRue, involved his students to secure and install more than 70 headstones in five cemeteries since 2002. More than half were for African American Civil War Veterans. Those include Beach Grove, the historic African American cemetery, in Cincinnati, for World War I Veterans. The other is Washington City Cemetery in Washington Court House, Ohio, where African American Civil War Veterans lay.

“This unique preservation project began in our local city cemetery after a student asked, ‘Don’t these men deserve better?’” LaRue said.

LaRue’s students laying a headstone.

The researchers only needed proper documentation to prove a Veteran’s service in order to obtain a headstone or marker through NCA. Each of them worked with local officials, the National Archives and Records Administration, and state and federal Veterans departments.

Requesting a headstone or marker

Anyone can request a burial headstone or marker if the service of the Veteran ended prior to April 6, 1917. Veterans who died prior to November 1, 1990, and whose graves are marked with a privately purchased headstone or marker in a private cemetery are not eligible to receive a second headstone or marker from NCA. However, a medallion is available to all decedents in this category who served on or after April 6, 1917. The medallion can be affixed to the existing headstone to show the Veteran’s branch of service.

In 2019, NCA furnished 161,939 headstones and markers, and 13,168 medallions, to Veterans interred in private cemeteries worldwide. For more information about the NCA headstone, marker and medallion program, visit https://www.va.gov/burials-memorials/memorial-items/headstones-markers-medallions/.


Navy Veteran Richelle Taylor is a public affairs specialist with VA’s National Cemetery Administration. 

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