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Tips For A Successful VA Headstone Application

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By Marc Chase

Anyone familiar with pioneer cemeteries has likely seen the problem of old marble monuments decaying, fading or braking over time. Marble is a beautiful stone but is subject to severe corrosive chemical reactions from acid rain and other elements. These reactions often render headstone inscriptions unreadable as generations pass.
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We faced this problem in winter and spring 2011 as we traveled to several Northwest Indiana cemeteries to chronicle the stories of hundreds of Calumet Region Civil War veterans for a special sesquicentennial edition of The Times of Northwest Indiana, my employer and the state’s second largest newspaper. Our observations yielded dozens of marble government-issued Civil War veteran markers that were broken or worn to the point of being nearly unreadable. All of our cemeteries are located near the south shore of Lake Michigan, in the heart of an industrial steel mill corridor. Our region would not exist as it does without that heavy industry, but it also likely has been a contributing factor to the environmental corrosion of these marble monuments. More than a century of wear has taken its toll.

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In the telling of our region’s Civil War hero’s stories in our newspaper, we realized an even greater need to organize a restoration project to replace their fading marble markers with new granite headstones better able to withstand the elements. To that end, we researched the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs veterans’ memorial program – a service born from the establishment of national cemeteries following the Civil War. It seemed fitting to use this program in a quest to replace headstones and restore grave sites of our local Civil War heroes. To date, the Calumet Region Civil War Preservation Project — our volunteer coalition of The Times, a local excavator, region historians, nine cemetery administrators and veteran descendants — has secured replacement headstones for more than 70 Civil War veteran graves.

Below are the steps we have used in working with and applying through the VA for the headstones. Most of these steps, as will be noted below with some variations, also can be used to obtain markers for veterans of other wars.

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Pre-Application Planning

Replacements for existing Civil War veterans’ markers are only issued for broken, missing or severely faded government-issued headstones. Obtain a full color digital photo of the veteran marker to be replaced. The VA will request an emailed copy of this photo after receiving the application.

Veterans who died after Nov. 1, 1990, are eligible for a VA headstone even if they already have an existing private headstone. Veterans who died before Nov. 1, 1990, are only eligible for a VA marker if their grave is unmarked or if their existing government marker is no longer serviceable (i.e. broken or worn to the point of being difficult to read).

You will need a private business address that will sign for and accept delivery of the headstone/headstones. Because we have applied for more than 70 stones, we enlisted the volunteer services of a local excavator who agreed to accept delivery and then transported and aided in the installation of the stones. Staffed cemetery offices also can serve as the delivery site.

The cemetery administrator must be on board with your headstone application. Whether it’s a township, municipal or private cemetery, you will need a signature and contact information on the VA application from the cemetery administrator.

When possible, the VA also requires the signature of a descendant or family member, however, it’s not always a deal breaker if you don’t have this. For our Civil War vets – and in other cases where a replacement or new marker is needed and family are no longer living or accessible – the VA has accepted the requests of cemetery administrators instead. This is another important reason for getting the cemetery administrator on board with your plans.

The VA application requires dates of military service, highest achieved rank and birth and death years of the veterans. You also should send in copies of supporting military service documents with the application. For Civil War vets, we used the service records from the National Park Service’s Soldiers & Sailors database coupled with state muster records. Many states make their regimental muster records, which show enlistment and discharge dates of Civil War veterans from particular states, available online.

Many old Civil War veteran markers lack dates of birth and death or are faded to the point of being difficult to read. Acenstry.com searches, cemetery burial records, old county birth and death records, genealogical cemetery readings sometimes available at local libraries and old funeral home records are all resources we used to fill in the blanks. We have been successful in tracking down this information for all but a few of our replacements. The VA seems to understand that it’s not always possible to find birth and death information, however, and has approved some applications that lack birth/death dates.

Keep in mind you will need a plan for setting any headstone you obtain. The VA will furnish and deliver the headstones to a designated business address. After that, you’re on your own for the installation. Again, if you’re setting the stone yourself, check the laws of your state and make sure you have the cooperation and permission of the cemetery administrator.

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Nolan and Connor honor the old gravestone of Thomas Kitchen in Valparaiso IN.

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Thomas Kitchen new stone arrived from the VA.

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The boys have become very involved in the tracking and identification of headstone replacement candidates.

Application Process

Draft a cover letter to be sent in with your VA headstone application. Tell the VA who you are, why you’re applying for the stone and describe the existing headstone’s condition if you’re seeking a new stone. Make sure it is signed by you – as the applicant – and the administrator of the cemetery. If you don’t have the administrator sign the cover letter, the VA will request a special letter from the cemetery – beyond their required application signature. This will delay the application process.

Make sure you read all instructions and fill out all required boxes noted on the VA’s headstone application form. The form is available in a pdf format that you can download and type on using your computer. Access the form at http://www.va.gov/vaforms/va/pdf/VA40-1330.pdf

Headstones are available in flat or upright white marble, flat or upright gray granite or bronze plates that are screwed onto existing stone markers or vault panels. To stay true to the original Civil War design but to obtain more lasting monuments, we ordered the stones in upright granite. You will need to check with the cemetery administrator for any rules on flat or upright markers. If you desire a true headstone – and not just a bronze placard – we suggest granite as it holds up much better to the elements. We have seen early 1900s granite headstones, which appear as if they’re brand new, standing next to decaying marble stones from the same time period.

If you’re applying for a Civil War marker or want to request additional inscription information beyond rank, military branch, birth and death information, include that additional information in the “Remarks” section at the bottom of the application. If it’s a Civil War application, this is where the government will look if you’re requesting the vintage style embossed with the Union Shield or Confederate insignia. This is also where you note the company and regiment of the Civil War veteran.

For speed in the application process, fax your signed applications to the VA rather than mailing them. Include your email address on the form. Within a week or two after the VA receives the application, an agency representative will likely request a color photo if you’re seeking a replacement marker.

If you have further questions about the process we used in obtaining VA headstones, I (Marc Chase) can be reached via email at wolfchase2@sbcglobal.net.

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