Samuel Joseph Hanna was a pragmatist.
He wouldn’t have fussed over the sparse tufts of grass that cover his plot at the Cape May County Veterans Cemetery, or the weeds that periodically choke his bronze placard, or the thieves who stole the copper flag holder from his grave.
Before he succumbed to Hodgkin’s disease in 2003, the World War II Navy veteran told Doris, his wife of 52 years, as much.
“Don’t come visit me,” he said. “I’m not here.”
Samuel’s nonchalance offers no comfort to Doris, who at 80 years old still visits his resting place every few months to share family news or seek relief for worldly stress. Her Samuel would never complain, but it’s more difficult for Doris to take the situation lightly.
“We’ll have a big ceremony this Memorial Day, and down the road, at the back of the cemetery, there’s this,” she said. “This isn’t honoring the veterans.”
While the front half of the cemetery facing Crest Haven Road in the Swainton section of Middle Township features tree-lined boulevards and a landscaped memorial, Doris said the back section is often neglected.
Grass grows through the buckles and cracks in the cemetery’s concrete paths. Several graves are still mounds of dirt, despite the passage of years since the interred veterans and their spouses were buried. In March, Doris said her daughter had to clear away foot-high weeds to see the placard. In years past, Doris brought a rake and grass seed to tend to the grave after years of waiting for plantings that never came.
“The way it looks now is as good as it has ever looked,” laments Doris, standing over the grave a few weeks before a planned Memorial Day ceremony at the county-run cemetery.
But the greatest insult came last year when Doris said thieves went through the entire cemetery removing the flag holders and flower caps they could sell for their metal.
“He’d be the last person in the world to be worried about anything like that,” she said. “But I think he deserves better.”
Virginia Tomlin, director of the Cape May County Veterans Bureau, said she received six complaints of vandalism related to the flag holders last year, prompting the Sheriff’s Office to begin patrolling the area regularly.
As for the rest of the maintenance, Tomlin said the county does its best to keep up with the job. Various organizations also place flags there around Memorial Day and Veterans Day, she said.
“There are cutbacks in staffing in the county, just as everywhere else,” she said. “But we do have a maintenance agreement for mowing as of May 1.”
But Cape May County isn’t the only veterans memorial to face problems with maintenance and vandalism.
Diana Pitman, director of the Cumberland County Veterans Commission, said the decision was made before she took over the post to use plastic flag holders that wouldn’t attract the attention of metal thieves.
“We don’t use metal for that very reason,” she said. “They look just as nice, and you can’t tell we use the plastic ones.”
The larger problems were related to Tropical Storm Irene last year. While the storm didn’t damage any of the memorials or placards, she said it did lead to a lot of flooding and ground settling.
“There wasn’t a lot of physical damage, but it really gets watered down, and of course that kills the grass,” she said.
Bob Frolow, director of Atlantic County Veteran Services, said the remoteness of the county’s veterans cemetery inside Atlantic County Park in Estell Manor means that it’s never been particularly attractive to metal thieves.
The same could not be said for a memorial in Atlantic City, where the county had installed plaques beneath the trees near the old high school at Albany and Atlantic avenues.
“It got to a point someone was prying them up and melting them down for the bronze,” he said. “We had to take the remaining ones and put them out in Estell Manor.”
Frolow, a Vietnam vet, said about a dozen of the plaques were lost to thieves before they could be relocated about six years ago.
“It’s sickening,” he said. “The reason they were there is for decorated soldiers. For someone to take it to buy bread or something like that is bad. We’d find a way to give them the bread.”
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