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Booker High JROTC cadets clean servicemen’s graves at cemetery

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BHS cadets clean gravestone

HONORING THE FALLEN: Booker High JROTC cadets clean a soldier's gravesite at historic Oalands/Woodlawn Cemetery in Newtown. Joao Soares is at left; in partial view at right is Karla Quintanilla.

SARASOTA, Dec. 19, 2017 — The Booker High School JROTC cadets have begun a service project to clean gravesites in historic Oaklands/Woodlawn Cemetery in Newtown, the final resting place of many veterans from the community. The restoration project was begun Dec. 12. Plans call for the work to continue as an ongoing tribute to the fallen.

The project first came to JROTC instructor and retired Army Lt. Col. Ben Weiss from Deborah Livingston, who has chronicled the lives of Newtown’s citizens. Livingston showed Weiss an album that includes archival photos of local men who had served in the military. After seeing the soldiers, he decided to do something to honor them.

“I looked into the faces of those young men who died not even a year after their pictures were taken,” said Weiss. “Those photos still haunt me.”

Inspired by the idea of creating a proper burial ground in the graveyard, which has become mostly derelict, Weiss presented the idea to his cadets. “They were behind it 100 percent,” he said. The JROTC unit partnered with a local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which is providing funding and manpower for a two-phase restoration project that began Dec. 12. Students and staff cleaned out weeds and overgrown shrubs, and scrubbed the lichen and moss off of existing headstones. One student has been assigned the task of mapping the land for posterity.

“As it is, you can walk through this place and feel the ground change under your feet because you’re standing on a crypt that has, through the years, been covered in pine and sand,” Weiss said. He adds that the map will help facilitate future upkeep and maintenance.

In the spring, the group will follow up with further maintenance and place an American flag on a pole in the cemetery, along with a plaque dedicated to the veterans who are laid to rest there: The inscription will read: “To our community’s veterans: When our nation called, you answered.” The names of the men who are buried in the cemetery will be listed beneath.

Weiss, who is known on the Booker High campus for leading service projects and field trips to places like West Point, is passionate about ensuring that these men and women have the proper respects paid to them, because his background in the military has inspired him “to love these soldiers.”

And while his long career in the military and education has been marked by many accomplishments for him and his cadets, Weiss feels particularly drawn to this activity: “This is the coolest project I have done in 18 years with the students,” he said. “It means a lot to them, and I’m convinced it does for the veterans and their descendants.”


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