Veterans graves project

In this August file photo, Mike Dudo talks about his plan to procure and place bronze makers for the unmarked graves of veterans buried in Greenwood Cemetery.

Mike Dudo spent his summer hunting graves.

Now he’ll spend the winter raising funds.

Dudo and his daughter, Jessica, undertook an personal project earlier this year to locate the graves of veterans buried at Greenwood Cemetery and, where there are missing or illegible tombstones, to procure and install bronze Veterans Administration markers bearing the deceased’s name and service history.

Dudo, a Navy veteran who served from 1994-97, started with a 35-page list of 935 veterans buried in Greenwood.

“We got it down to 247 that we couldn’t find,” he said. “Those are the ones that need replaced. Right now we’re in the process of raising the money to do that.”

The bronze markers will be provided at no charge by the Veterans Administration, but they must be installed on concrete backers, and those will cost money.

“247 backers — we’re looking at about $70,000,” Dudo said. “It’s a big uphill battle.”

But veterans like Dudo don’t shy away from battles. And the Union Township resident, who lives adjacent to the cemetery, has already started fighting his.

He is offering a line of T-shirts and sweatshirts with an eagle and shield on the front, and a U.S. flag with soldier silhouettes on the reverse. Beneath the artwork are the words “Honoring All Who Served. Navy. Army. Air Force. Marines. Coast Guard.”

The shirts can be ordered now by contacting Dudo, who expects delivery in February. Dudo also has scheduled a Night at the Races and pasta dinner for April 14 at St. John Maronite Hall on Pearson Street. Tickets for these events also are available now.

Dudo also is hoping to find some grant money to support his efforts, and he’s talked with local state legislators who are helping him search.

“There’s got to be something out there somewhere to help,” he said, “and I plan on finding it.”

In the meantime, Dudo is thrilled with the support he’s receiving. This summer, Dan Salvatore, chairman of the cemetery board, promised to provide the concrete and set the stones for the markers at no cost. County veterans office director Jesse Putnam has Dudo’s list of 247 names, “and she’s going to start working on the plaques for us.”

After The News featured Dudo’s project in September, he started hearing from folks both inside and outside the county. A Kansas City-based veterans organization called and asked to do its own story on him. A Hillsville woman who had a family member who'd once engraved gravestones called to say she had several at her home to which Dudo was welcome. Dudo picked them up, but they wound up being too small and too old to work. “Still, it was a nice gesture,” he said.

Dudo also has received calls from people doing similar projects, looking for advice. One came from Louisville, Kentucky, and another from the Philadelphia area, where the caller asked how he arranged to get the VA plaques. The caller said he was being told that they were available only to the next of kin.

However, according to the website of the Department of Veterans Affairs, “The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) furnishes upon request, at no charge to the applicant, a Government headstone or marker for the unmarked grave of any deceased eligible Veteran in any cemetery around the world, regardless of their date of death.” The website makes no mention of a next-of-kin requirement.

“I had no answer for them,” Dudo said. “I just have a lot of support, and my VA rep is behind me.”

In addition to raising funds, Dudo also must figure out how he’ll know which of the 247 markers go on which unmarked grave. He’s hoping cemetery records will provide some direction.

All of it is going to take some time, but Dudo is committed to sticking it out.

“It may take five years,” he said, “but we’re going to get it done.”

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Reporter/page designer

Dan Irwin is currently a reporter and page designer. He was most recently the editor. He started with The News in 1978 and spent 10 years as a sports writer. He's a '78 Slippery Rock University graduate with a B.A. in English.

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