Saturday, May 26, 2001

Restoration effort goes nowhere fast

Government has no answers for vets' resting place

By Tom O'Neill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ANDERSON TWP. — A year ago, the Ohio Army National Guard pledged labor and equipment worth $1.6 million to restore a rundown cemetery housing the remains of more than a thousand war veterans.

        But nothing has been done to Hillcrest Cemetery. The Guard has yet to even complete the study on restoration.

        And so another Memorial Day will pass at Hillcrest, with today's 1 p.m. ceremony to be held in the shadow of tombstones obscured by overgrown weeds or washed away by erosion and neglect.

[photo] Carl Woodruff, an auxiliary U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, and his wife, Sharon, plant flowers at Hillcrest Cemetery on Thursday evening.
(Glenn Hartong photos)
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        Of the 1,388 veterans from the Civil War to Vietnam buried there, 849 are African-American vets from all over the United States who were denied burial elsewhere because of their skin color. An additional 700 graves are nonmilitary.

        “Personally, I felt that's no way to treat an American soldier,” said Carl Woodruff, an auxiliary U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel from Miami Township, Clermont County.

        Local vets groups, civil air patrol units and high-school groups — including McNicholas High — periodically come to clean up Hillcrest. They've erected flags, installed benches and tirelessly established grave directories.

        But because Hillcrest has no legal owner, no one has taken responsibility for its costly erosion control and upkeep.

        Some caskets are exposed. Rain often takes the hillside, and vets' tombstones, with it.

"A lot of talk'
        Hamilton County's records list 237 soldiers buried at Hillcrest for whom no gravestones can be found.

[photo] A tattered U.S. flag rests on the grave marker of World War II veteran David A. Cox of Ohio.
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        It's a cemetery for veterans, but not a veterans cemetery. Thus, the federal Department of Veterans Affairs says it cannot help. Mr. Woodruff, an organizer of today's events, didn't serve during wartime. He isn't “regular Army” — he's just an American.

        “My big concern is, some of my friends were killed in battle,” Mr. Woodruff explained. “I always say I'd never leave a buddy behind, in the battlefield or whatever.”

        But Hillcrest has been left behind.

        Township and county officials looked to the state, which looked to the federal government, which says it cannot help because Hillcrest was never designated as a veterans cemetery.

        Nobody wanted Hillcrest.

        Then last June, the National Guard estimated “limited site improvements” at $1.6 million for a commercial venture to do it, said Capt. Neal O'Brien of the Ohio Army National Guard. The actual cost to the Guard is estimated at $685,000, which would come from the Guard's federally funded Military Innovative Reading Program.

        When the plan was unveiled at a River Downs racetrack luncheon of state and local officials, it was the first viable long-term solution to emerge from the governmental hand-wringing.

[photo] Jeff Bellamah, a probation field supervisor, says he and the crews he oversees can do only so much.
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        The feasibility study might be completed in the next few weeks, Capt. O'Brien said. It could deem Hillcrest unworkable, but even if it doesn't, delays could follow as the Guard aligns its own training needs with those of Hillcrest.

        “I've never seen anybody come out, and that's a shame,” said Jeff Bellamah, a probation field supervisor who on Wednesday watched three drug/alcohol offenders in orange jumpsuits cut weeds around tombstones under a light drizzle. It's part of their community-service sentences.

        “You hear a lot of talk; but that's all it is, talk,” he said.

        Behind him, a black-and-white flag saluting lost veterans flailed in the wind-driven rain, ripped on the side, frayed at the ends.

Lack of resources, time
        For today's ceremony, Mr. Woodruff arranged for a new POW-MIA flag, and a new American flag that waves above it.

    • When: 1 p.m. today.

    • Where: Hillcrest Cemetery, Sutton Road, Anderson Township.

    • Expect:Hamilton County Judge Ethna Cooper will speak. A 21-gun salute by the 107th Cavalry and a flyover by the Cincinnati Warbirds are scheduled. Park in nearby Coney Island lot (opposite the main gate to Coney) and take a shuttle to Hillcrest.

        “It's been an ongoing process,” Capt. O'Brien said from Columbus. “We've been collecting info. Engineers have been out there, but the final touch is matching up needs and resources.”

        That's the part that has always tripped up the soldiers of Hillcrest, which is tucked on a rambling hillside just eight-tenths of a mile from Coney Island..

        “The two primary issues are resources and obviously, time,” Capt. O'Brien said.

        Time is relative at Hillcrest.

        According to county records, Hillcrest is owned by two dead men and a defunct church cemetery association. The last “existent” owner, Hillcrest Cemetery Association Inc., was incorporated in 1926 and listed as defunct Aug. 5, 1991, by then-Ohio Secretary of State Robert Taft for failure to reregister.

        Since the mid-1980s, with Union Baptist Church no longer active at Hillcrest, the 14-acre cemetery has fallen into deplorable condition.

        Last year, the probation department had seven lawn mowers and seven weed cutters with which to work at Hillcrest. But with blades constantly hitting half-buried tombstones and rocks, the department is now down to two lawn mowers and a trimmer.

        Mr. Bellamah said that if local companies could donate some weed killer, it would help tremendously. But he knows that's just another short-term answer.

        “I got one (tombstone) slidin' down the hill right there,” Mr. Bellamah said, gesturing down a hillside. “Others that are exposed, there's nothing I can do for 'em.”

        That's been the government's answer for years.

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