Soldiers honored in remote cemeteries

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(Host) Communities all over the country celebrate Memorial Day by planting flags on the graves of citizens who served in the military.

In rural Vermont, honoring those who served can sometimes mean a hike – and some detective work.

VPR’s Susan Keese reports:

(Keese) Charlie Marchant parks his pickup on a muddy shoulder. He grabs his clippers and some flags, and follows the remnant of a steep road overgrown with hemlocks and oaks.

(Marchant) “We’re going to the Howe cemetery. The only reason I can say it’s called that is there’s some Howes buried in it and the Howe farm is up the road up there.”

(Keese) Marchant is a cemetery commissioner in Townshend and he’s a member of the Vermont Old Cemetery Association. The group maintains abandoned cemeteries all over the state.

Marchant is also a retired history teacher and a Vietnam Veteran. He’s here because two Civil War soldiers are buried in a little cluster of graves just now coming into view.

(Marchant) “One is a Townshend fellow who enlisted from Townshend. His name is Howe Gardner Howe, and it says he was in company C of the eleventh Vermont infantry.”

(Keese) Marchant places a flag by the small discolored slab of marble veined with moss and lichen.

(Marchant) “I think it’s part of our tradition as a nation to honor veterans and Memorial Day is a national holiday, so it’s proclaimed as such. As a veteran myself, I sort of identify with all of these guys.”

(Keese) Marchant thinks about the hundreds of miles these men traveled on foot to defend the union, and the harsh conditions they endured.

(Marchant) “And I think that we owe the debt to — these guys paved the way for us to be able to live the way we live, and that’s true of the other ones that followed and the ones today.”

(Keese) The other Civil War veteran here was named Walter Jennison. He died in a training camp in Brattleboro.

(Marchant) “Like many of the Vermont soldiers, they weren’t used to living in the confinement of large numbers of people and they got sick and then camp diseases took over. And he’s one of the soldiers that died of disease and never went south with his unit.”

(Keese) Marchant has been tracking the stories of a hundred men who enlisted from Townshend. He found their names in an old town report.

He clips some briars around the stone and plants a second flag. Next he’ll visit another small cemetery to honor a World War II veteran whose grave is marked only by a marble post carved with an initial.

He says he’s not the only one who does this.

(Marchant) “I’ve been in literally hundreds of cemeteries in the state of Vermont, some of them a lot farther back in the woods than this one, and very rarely have I not seen flags put up. Occasionally they look a little decrepit, which means they’re not necessarily put up every year.”

(Keese) Marchant says he thinks a lot about Kyle Gilbert, a young soldier from Guilford who died in Iraq. A monument near a bridge dedicated in his name bears Gilbert’s last words to his parents in a phone call before he died: Just don’t forget me.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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