Putting Real Meaning into National Service Day

MLK Holiday Restoration Work and Ceremony at Oak Hill Saints and Sinners Cemetery.  

On 15 January, at a small, historically African American Cemetery in the tiny town of Oak Hill, Florida, only 10 miles north of the VA Cape Canaveral National Cemetery, something very special happened.  More than 85 people including many veterans from Volusia and Brevard County as well as the community, came together to restore headstones from vandalized and sunken veteran grave sites. There were also there to honor the veterans  and hold a re-dedication and remembrance military burial ceremony for one family who missed that promised ceremony decades earlier.

This year the VA National Cemetery Administration (VA/NCA) chose the tiny Saints and Sinners Cemetery in Oak Hill to support on MLK Day with a new headstone in the case of one family and ongoing support to repair 21 veteran grave sites damaged by vandalism, floods and neglect over many decades.  Dan Devine, the VA/NVA Outreach Director organized the support and came to Florida for the Ceremony.  Most of the veterans were from WWI and WWII. 

There are five million veterans who rest in peace at carefully maintained VA Cemeteries, but millions more are buried in private cemeteries.  All are entitled to a military service and proper headstone or marker.  On that day, two such headstones were brought to VA/NCA standards, one was raised from being almost fully sunken in the flood prone area, and another provided a brand new headstone by the NCA after having been crushed by vandals. 

More than 20 descendants of Army SP5 Blaise Merrick Cook drove from Miami and Jacksonville to see the new headstone unveiled and to be honored by American Legion Post 285 of Edgewater, FL with their Honor Guard.  They performed folding the flag and presenting it to her sister, the rifle salute and Taps.  In addition the Fitzgerald family of Mims provided their beautiful caisson while Doug Bisset and Hans Hunt of the Brevard Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) connected the first veterans in America (their ancestors) with uniforms and the firing of a miniature Revolutionary War Cannon in honor of Ms. Cook.

Numerous veteran organizations from both counties planned and conducted the event.  Special hats off to Ann Welch and others from the Oak Hill Saints and Sinners Historic African American Cemetery Restoration, Inc. Committee.  They began their work 18 months ago and still have months ahead to finish all 21 veteran sites in the still active cemetery.  More than 35 veterans and others came north from Brevard to provide logistical support and funding from the Good Deeds Foundation of the Cape Canaveral Chapter of the Military Officer’s Association of America, one of the largest in the country.

It was truly a case of many communities, including many veterans, coming together.  When the 45 minute ceremony was over and the work continued there were many smiles and some tears, but all were happy they spent that holiday in service in a very unique way and place.