On a hillside on the edge of Winona, a flat stone sinks farther into the soft and grassy earth every year: the weathered grave of a forgotten veteran of a forgotten war with Spain. Little red, white, and blue flags pepper the cemetery each Veterans Day, but this stone is unadorned. For years, there was hardly a sign that the man buried below carried his country's arms; even his name was weathered almost beyond recognition.
This spring Matt Aufderhar and nine other volunteers from Boy Scout Troop 14 spent hours and hours working their way through St. Mary's Cemetery in Winona with GPS units and clipboards. The boys and a few parents went row by row, marked the graves of known veterans, discovered some forgotten ones, and entered all of their notes into a spreadsheet. At times, Aufderhar made rubbings of the most worn tombstones, to better discern whether they were engraved with a record of military service. Now, all of the graves and names of the veterans buried at the cemetery, 1,271 of them according to Aufderhar, can be found in a matter of minutes.
Visitors to St. Mary's Cemetery seeking relatives or researching local history can find Aufderhar's list of veterans and their graves at the cemetery office building, where they may also borrow a GPS unit that will direct them to within feet of the grave they are seeking. The project had its public debut on Monday, Veterans Day.
The list will be helpful on Memorial Day, when the Winona Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) place flags at the graves of all veterans in the cemetery. In the past, VFW volunteers relied on clearly marked tombstones, bronze stars hung next to graves, or just their own memories to make sure that every veteran's grave had a flag. "But the problem is, over the course of the years, some of the stars have disappeared," explained VFW Post 1287 Commander Jim Lukaszewki. Try as they may, flag planters miss graves, and family members visiting those graves are left wondering why their loved one did not receive the same honor.
"It's about getting the recognition that these veterans deserve. The least we can do is make sure that they have recognition on Memorial Day," Lukaszewski said. The VFW had long wanted to compile a complete list and map the location of veterans in the cemetery.
Local Boy Scout and VFW leaders suggested the idea to Aufderhar for his Eagle Scout project and he ran with it. Aufderhar was already enamored with orienteering — a sport in which people use a map and a compass to travel along a route they do not know. He and other scouts would set up challenge courses at local state parks and test their skills with compasses and GPS units. Originally, the GPS mapping was what attracted Aufderhar to the project, "but after I learned more about it, I though it was a really cool idea to help families find people," he said. "I was pretty interested in seeing the graves from the Spanish American War, graves that haven't been visited in a really long time," he added.
Creating the comprehensive list has been a project the VFW has long wanted to complete. "Matt just up and did it," Lukaszewski explained. "This was a pretty aggressive undertaking," he added.
Looking out at the fields of graves he had combed, Aufderhar agreed, "It was a lot to write down."
Woodlawn Cemetery is older and larger, with Civil War era graves, said Lukaszewski. Mapping of the veterans there would be a "Herculean task," he commented. Perhaps it is a task for more than one Eagle Scout project.
A binder with names, ranks, and other information about the veterans buried at St. Mary's Cemetery, along with a GPS donated by the VFW, is available at the cemetery office building from 8:30 am. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.