ALTON — When Reed Milnor helped the Alton Leathernecks plant American flags on veterans’ graves in Oakwood (Upper Alton) Cemetery for Memorial Day in 2012, he didn’t like what he saw. Weeds were encroaching on headstones and some memorial plaques had sunk into the ground as the earth eroded beneath them.
Fast forward two-plus years and Reed, 14, is back at the cemetery planting flags. This time, though, the flags are color-coded. Pink indicates a plaque that is underwater or covered with grass. Orange means the plaque has a base raising it above ground but is weed-covered and dirty. White is “pristine, it just needs a little weed whacking,” Reed said.
Reed, of Godfrey, is a Boy Scout in Alton’s Troop 7. When it came time to choose a project as a requirement to become an Eagle Scout, he thought of the cemetery.
“Reed had to submit three ideas to the committee. But in his heart of hearts, he knew he wanted to work on the veterans’ graves,” said his mom, Laurie Milnor.
Reed received permission from the cemetery’s board of directors to clean veterans’ graves in seven sections of the 50-acre cemetery. But first, the graves had to be found. With the help of Lacy McDonald, genealogy and local history manager at Hayner Public Library, a spreadsheet was created with a list of veterans buried there.
The Alton Leathernecks and VFW Post 1308 provided financial support and veteran volunteers spent six hours helping to find the graves.
“During Phase 1 on Oct. 4, we mapped, documented and flagged 198 gravestones,” Reed said.
A week later, about two dozen scouts and adult volunteers met for Phase 2 of the project — sweeping headstones, trimming weeds and bringing the memorial plaques back into view.
“It’s tough work but rewarding and valuable,” said Laurie Milnor, as she used a knife to cut grass from around a plaque. “It will take vigilance to keep the graves clean after this initial work.”
Arlene Mathus arrived to get Milnor’s tools and said several more graves had just been found.
“Sunken in, mowed over and forgotten. And this is a fairly new section of the cemetery,” Mathus said, noting that older sections probably would have more lost graves.
There are still 25 more sections in the cemetery and Reed said he hopes other scouts will continue the work for their own Eagle projects.
“When I’m working on my project, I always feel as if I am doing something that will make a difference,” Reed said. “Knowing that the work I do now will make a difference now and in the future for these veterans’, their families, and the community is a small way I can give back to them for the service they have given to our country.”