Old Guard Soldiers Help Restore DC Cemetery

21812238218_2a834a43e0_oOn a sunny October morning at Saint Elizabeths Cemetery in DC, dew covered rows of tombstones are fighting a losing battle against the elements, surrounded on all sides by weeds.

Luckily, reinforcements have arrived.

Soldiers from the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) and Coast Guardsmen from the National Capital Region volunteered their time to restore Saint Elizabeths Cemetery October 6, 2015.

Organized by Coast Guard Lt. Alexander T. Austin from Coast Guard Headquarters with help from his brother, Army Sgt. 1st Class Miguel A. Serrano of the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), the project aims to restore the honor of the 4,000 service members buried here.

Saint Elizabeths Cemetery is one of two area cemeteries that are being refreshed as part of a “Historical Cemetery 21813190639_109da9011d_oRestoration Project”, said Austin.

The cemetery holds veterans dating all the way back to the Spanish-American War, in addition to a lone veteran of the War of 1812, and the grave of a Negro Scout from the Seminole War.

“Saint Elizabeth has two Medal of Honor recipients in it,” said Austin. “A lot of historical stuff.”

Opened in 1855, Saint Elizabeths serves people with mental illness. Today, Saint Elizabeths is partially run by the Department of Homeland Security.

With access to all federal buildings becoming restricted after 9/11, the cemetery located on the campus has fallen into disrepair.

“Its pretty simple, when we go to Arlington (National Cemetery) its pristine and its beautiful,” said Austin. “Obviously it is an honor for those people to be interned or buried there.”

Austin found the poor conditions of the grave sites heartbreaking.

So, Austin took on the challenge to restore the site.

At first the project’s manpower consisted of only two Coast Guardsmen.

“When I first came out here it was just me and lieutenant commander,” said Austin. “And I said ‘Oh my god. How are we going to get this done in one day?’”

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Coast Guard Lt. Alexander T. Austin from Coast Guard Headquarters and Army Sgt. 1st Class Miguel A. Serrano of the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) helped clean the final resting place of soldiers dating all the way back to the Spanish-American War, in addition to a lone veteran of the War of 1812, and the grave of a Negro Scout from the Seminole War.

Seeing the huge scope of the project, Austin talked to his brother Serrano to see if he could be of any assistance.

“First thing I did was call him and say, ‘Can we mobilize the Army?’” said Austin. “He (Serrano) was like, ‘Let me see what I can do.’”

Serrano asked commanders in The Old Guard to solicit for volunteers. The response was tremendous.

“The 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment, being that they are the face to the families and the face of the Army, being an ambassador, we said ‘Why not collaborate with the Coast Guard and bring the soldiers out here so they can see we are a unified force,” said Serrano. “Coming out here, basically being a part of the community.”

A combination of 40 Old Guard Soldiers and Coast Guard volunteers grabbed rakes and weed eaters and got to work clearing brush and debris.

The cooperation, along with help from area contactors and DC Department of General Services, is reinvigorating the final resting place of these honorable service members.

Old Guard Soldiers helped drag overgrown branches to a wood chipper. Soldiers bushwhacked with machetes while others piled waste with pitchforks.

To preserve the century old headstones, service members worked on their hands and knees to pull weeds from the base of the gravestones.

Truckloads of yard waste were removed.

The hard work was worthwhile for Austin.

Austin said, “If I can spend a day coming out here and just cleaning their final resting place, maybe I can give them a little bit of that honor back.”

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