“The ground is hard, hard, hard,” said Dick Donahoo, scraping the blade along the bottom of the 10-inch-deep formation.
Although the result may not be as eye-catching and precisely aligned as grave markers placed at Arlington National Cemetery, Donahoo’s work is just as important as Memorial Day approaches.
“North to South, they’re pretty lined up,” he said pointing to rows of tombstones. “East and West, not so much, as you can see.”
In 2007, Donahoo placed his first veteran’s memorial to mark his father’s grave at the Cortez Cemetery. Since, he’s volunteered alongside his longtime friend Larry Claycomb, and together they’ve set about 70 headstones for military veterans at cemeteries in Montezuma County.
He coordinates with the American Legion to verify plot sites and the Veterans Administration to obtain the memorials.
“Not long after my dad’s marker, I started doing others, he said.”
“It’s just a little digging and shoveling.”
Digging a little deeper, Claycomb and Donahoo each said the work gives them time to socialize and remember friends who’ve gone before them.
“We turn an hourlong project into a two- or three- hour ordeal,” said Claycomb. “It’s a good way for us to stay connected.”
“We have a personal connection to so many of the people buried here,” interrupted Donahoo, “but it doesn’t make us sad. It makes us feel good.”
“We’re doing something for the veterans and their families,” said Claycomb as Donahoo nodded in agreement. “It’s just a way for us to give back. It means a lot to the families, so it means a lot to us too.”
The homage has even altered Claycomb’s outlook when adhering to his father’s dying wishes 40 years ago. A World War II veteran like Donahoo’s father, Bill Claycomb didn’t want a memorial gravesite. His ashes were scattered.
“He didn’t want anyone coming to a hole in the ground and being sad,” Claycomb said.
“But families need a place where they can go to memorialize their loved ones,” Donahoo said.
Friends for more than five decades, Claycomb has reached the same conclusion, and a military marker for his father is planned later this year.
“These headstones are here for the people left behind,” said Claycomb. “It’s a memorial, literally.”
“They’re gone, but they certainly aren’t forgotten,” said Donahoo.
The marble and granite gravestones weigh more than 200 pounds each. Donahoo said the hardest aspect was ensuring the markers didn’t crack and break during installation.
“They feel every bit of 250 pounds,” he said.
“We don’t throw them around,” Claycomb joked.
Donahoo, who served in the U.S. Coast Guard from June 1969 to March 1973, described the endeavor as a means to acknowledge the sacrifice and patriotism of veterans.
“It turns out, many, many of the veterans we’re doing this for; we know,” Donahoo said. “It makes it more personal.”
“There’s lots and lots of stories out here,” he added. “It makes our work more interesting.”
When Claycomb is unable to assist, family members of deceased veterans often times pitch in to help, Donahoo said. He recalled one family who brought lawn chairs and a picnic to watch a headstone be set.
“They sat there under that shade tree,” he said, “while the son-in-law helped me. It’s nice to visit with the families, and get to know the people we’re trying to help.”
Neither Donahoo nor Claycomb charge fees for materials or labor, but many families do make voluntary donations, which help to cover expenses.
“In one word, I’d have to describe the families as grateful,” Donahoo said. “They’ve been very generous.”
Donahoo, 68, a retired school teacher, and Claycomb, 69, who retired from Indian Health Services, have set a goal to install a total of 100 headstones.
“We’ve been doing 10 or so a year, so another three to four years, and we’ll call it quits,” said Donahoo.
“We’re going to have to train some replacements,” said Claycomb.
“We enjoy it, but we’ll be ready to pass the baton,” said Donahoo.