LABELLE — Rolling Thunder Chapter 5 gathered at the Fort Denaud Cemetery to clean the headstones of veterans who had been buried there as part of a local movement started by Trae Zipperer, a Navy veteran. Wanting to do something to show respect for fallen soldiers, Mr. Zipperer started on a mission to clean and maintain local veterans’ headstones, that are often neglected for decades. His mission has kicked of an active project throughout Southwest Florida, known as “By Memorial Day” that he hopes will spread nationwide.
“By Memorial Day Inc. is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation established for the purpose of providing perpetual care for all veteran grave markers. Together, we will clean every veteran headstone in America by Memorial Day 2020. Together, every year going forward, we will perform annual maintenance on every veteran headstone in America by Memorial Day. They deserve no less, and American volunteers will answer the call,” states the GoFundMe description for the project. It goes on to say, “Millions of sacred veteran headstones marking the hallowed ground containing the remains of military veterans are covered in black algae, lichens, dirt,= and grime. Please help us restore America’s honor by cleaning every veteran headstone in America by Memorial Day.”
Some veterans’ headstones are from 100 years ago, and have no family available to clean them. Mr. Zipperer felt he should be allowed to clean all the headstones of the men and women he considers his brothers and sisters, but there was quite a bit of resistance from cemetery management, government officials including mayors, several congressmen and even senators, about allowing the cleaning of these headstones — as the rules were that only family members were allowed to maintain gravesites. So, he persisted and eventually a headstone cleaning protocol with the National Cemetery Administration was established.
“We estimate there are at least 6 million veteran grave markers scattered all across America located in literally hundreds of thousands of private and municipal cemeteries where most have been forgotten,” wrote Mr. Zipperer. “This isn’t the government’s responsibility. This is our responsibility as grateful, patriotic Americans. It is our job, each and every one of us, to get out into our local cemeteries, find these veteran grave markers covered in filth, and rally our friends and neighbors to clean them properly. Let’s show some respect for what these men and women sacrificed on the front line of our freedom.”
Mr. Zipperer has been inviting citizens to join him for headstone cleaning events throughout Southwest Florida. Most recently, he set up an event at the Fort Denaud Cemetery on Saturday, May 16. Rolling Thunder’s dedicated members of Chapter 5 answered the call.
“We are not a motorcycle club. You do not have to be a veteran to join. You do not have to ride or own a motorcycle. We meet the second Monday of each month at 7 p.m. at VFW # 7721 in Naples, FL,” the Rolling Thunder website states.
Rolling Thunder is a nonprofit organization that works hard to bring awareness to POW-MIA, and has a mission to educate the public that many American Prisoners of War (POWs) were left behind after all previous wars and to help correct the past and to protect future veterans from being left behind should they become POWs or “Missing In Action.” Rolling Thunder is committed to helping American veterans from all wars. Members, like those from Chapter 5, donate their time to projects like the one Mr. Zipperer has started. The next cleaning event will be at Ortona Cemetery in Glades County, on Saturday, May 23, beginning at 9 a.m. The address is 8898 W. State Road 78, near Ortona.
“Buried at Ortona Cemetery in Glades County is World War II Navy Yeoman 3rd Class Petty Officer Lucille Ann Arvin. As a Navy WAVE, she deserves better than a white marble veteran headstone covered in thick black algae. Who will clean her stone?” Joanne Miller posted publicly, about the event on Facebook.
By Memorial Day Inc. Is asking for donations in order to continue to operate. “Organizing millions of volunteers to clean millions of veteran headstones is a sizable challenge to say the least. Some volunteers will provide their own cleaning supplies, but we have found it helpful to have necessary cleaning supplies on hand when volunteers arrive to clean headstones. Each cleaning kit costs approximately $52. Preparing 50 cleaning kits in advance for a veteran headstone cleaning event costs $2,600. The kits can be reused for additional cleaning events. Those are direct costs and don’t take into account the person doing the purchasing, a vehicle to move supplies and storage between headstone cleaning events,” wrote Mr. Zipperer. He went on, “Scale this need nationwide and you can understand why we need your donation to fund those volunteers who can’t afford the supplies. We also need to spread the word nationwide to attract millions of volunteers, and that takes many dollars to accomplish. We appreciate your financial support and ask that you share this worthy funding need with your friends, family and employer.”
To donate to the By Memorial Day GoFundMe, visit this link: gofundme.com/f/supplies-to-clean-veteran-headstones
As fundraisers, Rolling Thunder sells patches, shirts, hats and flags. If you are interested in POW/MIA or Rolling Thunder products, please contact them. Their Facebook page can be found at: facebook.com/rtflorida5.