Saturday, November 22, 2014

St. Johns County Commissioners Thank Operation Restore Respect and present FAC's Stewards of Heritage Award.

This week the St. Johns County Board of Commissioners formally thanked the Florida National Guard and Operation Restore Respect volunteers for their year of service in cleaning up San Sebastian Cemetery.  FPAN staff was on hand to add our congratulations and bestow one of our highest honors, Florida Archaeological Council's (FAC) Stewards of Heritage Award.  The bi-annual award is presented to individuals and organizations who have made significant contributions to aid archaeological preservation, further research, educate or otherwise promote public awareness of Florida archaeology.  The organization must also not have preservation in the mission, meaning this is a group that goes beyond the mission of their organization to care for cultural resources.  Florida National Guard traces its military heritage back to the founding of St. Augustine in 1565.  Since then, militia men and women have served to defend local communities.

Home Depot volunteers during 4H cleanup organized by Isaac Turner.

It didn't surprise me last year when I heard the National Guard were going to place flags at the grave sites at San Sebastian Cemetery in West Augustine.  It also didn't surprise me that they were appalled by the condition of the veterans graves.  Despite decade-old efforts to clean up the cemetery, it remained in a state of abandonment with little to no control over Florida foliage or care for the headstones.  I can't even say I was surprised when I heard they were going back after Veterans Day to stage a clean up.  We had been out recently to supervise a local 4H chapter that wanted to get involved with a weekend clean up day.   A lot of concerned groups were coming, yet very few stayed.

Wyatt working with D2 to clean and conserve Veteran headstones.
What surprised me was that after their initial clean up day, they came back.  And they didn't just care for the Veterans, they came back knowing that to truly honor the vets buried there they would need to restore honor to all those buried in San Sebastian.  As they battled the Florida foliage, they also took it upon themselves to seek training in managing cemetery landscapes and caring for historical burial sites.  They took advantage of every training opportunity available to them, and in fact hosted one of our Cemetery Resource Protection Training (CRPT) day long workshops. 

Operation Restore Respect: CMSgt Steven James, Lt Col Teresa Frank, Mark Frank.
On Tuesday we thanked CMSgt Steve James and Lieutenant Colonel Teresa Frank of the Florida National Guard and Mark Frank, founding members of Operation Restore Respect. They along with other volunteers from the Florida National Guard and National Guard Foundation have worked very hard to clear the 3 acre site.  I wanted the audience to know the larger problem of abandoned cemeteries across the state.  The figure is unknowable but could be in the thousands for cemeteries that are in need of stewards like the Franks.  I wanted to thank the county for it's continued interest in historical resources--not just historic cemeteries--and thank them for future services rendered in care of San Sebastian and other sites.  I also wanted to recognize  the Adjutant General of the Florida National Guard, Major General Emmett Titshaw, Jr and Mrs. Tittshaw.  I happened to meet the couple the week before planting flags at the cemetery for Veterans Day.

Major General and Mrs. Tittshaw placing flags the weekend before Veterans Day.

So Mission Accomplished!!!!

Well, not quite.  The foliage is a never ending concern as frequent visits are required to keep the weeds in check.  There are also a few areas of the cemetery yet to be cleared and explored.  Speaking of exploration, they cemetery is in desperate need of a survey and mapping.  The group also depends on the county's continued cooperation for picking up piles of vegetation that have been cleared and backed up into a driveway.

Want to get involved?  Best way is to join Operation Restore Respect Facebook group page where clean ups are coordinated.  You can also call your local FPAN office to ask about adopting an abandoned cemetery near you.  If you join FPAN's CRPT Alliance Facebook page we try and post current events and issues affecting all Florida cemeteries.  And of course you can always attend a CRPT workshop (next one up is in Orlando December 5, 2014).

Operation Restore Respect consider new flowers and evidence of the community returning to pay honor to loved ones the ultimate sign of Mission Accomplished.  Well, part 1 anyway:)

Also check out Department of Military Affairs article posted earlier this week.

Text and Images: Sarah Miller, FPAN staff

One Response so far.

  1. Way to go, Teresa and Mark Frank!! I love you guys and the kids!! What inspiring leaders you are, to take care of our past Vets, even with such little effort others give to help our current Vets. I love you and am so proud of you!!

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