Veterans gather to tend snow-covered memorial
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Around 11:30 Saturday morning, with temperatures well below freezing and the sky sprinkling snowflakes on their heads, about a dozen volunteers showed up at the West Virginia Veterans Memorial and set to work.
They cleared snow and ice from the monument's walkways, cleaned leaves out of grates and wiped smudges from the memorial's granite-faced walls.
The group came together through a local email list, which was used last Friday to circulate a Daily Mail article about problems at the memorial.
Kasey Warner, a 60-year-old Army veteran from Charleston, suggested members of the mailing list take matters into their own hands and clean the place up.
"Let's take the Nike approach and 'just do it,' " he wrote in one message. "If already cleaned up, we can stand around, drink coffee, scratch, and tell war stories that always improve with time."
Warner spent 31 years in active duty with the Army. He has a daughter who graduated from West Point and a son who served in Iraq. Two other daughters married servicemen. Four of his brothers were in the military.
"In our mind it's a crime for that memorial to suffer," he said. "The memorial and the people it honors . . . we ought to do better."
Saturday's workgroup included several veterans, Warner and his wife, as well as four young men from George Washington High School's JROTC program and two members of Capital High's JROTC.
"It's the least I could do to help out the community. That's what JROTC is all about," said Jaelan Warren, a GW senior and JROTC sergeant major.
As Warner used a backpack-style leaf blower to clear the memorial's walkways of loose powder, the high-schoolers began clearing heavier snow and ice with snow shovels, rakes and push brooms provided by Warner's younger brother, Monty.
Monty, 56, retired from the Army in 2003 after 29 of service. He now works with George Washington High's JROTC students.
"Anything that involves veterans, they stop what they're doing and get involved," he said.
Monty, who came dressed in a black "ARMY" hoodie identical to the one worn by his brother, expressed disappointment about the monument's upkeep.
He pointed out that, while the sidewalks all around memorial had been cleared of snow, the walkways leading through the monument were still covered. He imagined an elderly mother, her son killed in the Vietnam War more than 40 years ago, making a trip to Charleston just to see her boy's name etched in the black granite walls.
"If it's all iced up, they're not going to go see it," he said. "This is the most beautiful thing we have in the state for our fallen."
Realizing the shovels weren't doing much good on the icy walkways, newly retired Army Ranger Larry Stein drove to Green's Feed and Seed to buy road salt. When Stein mentioned why he needed the salt, owner Earl Green told him it was on the house.
"He didn't bat an eye. He said 'how much do you need?' " Stein said.
He returned to the work party with two 50-pound bags of salt.
Another former Ranger, Greg Brown, of Belle, came to the Capitol complex armed with a bottle of Windex to clean smudges from the monument's walls, but started his afternoon's work digging soggy leaves from the grates protecting the memorial's interior spotlights.
"I figured it's a good thing to do on a nice warm day," Brown, 49, said jokingly.
The group worked for about an hour, and afterward Kasey and Monty bought cheeseburgers for some of the JROTC boys at a nearby Wendy's.
There were several problems the band of volunteers could not fix, however.
Nighttime lighting at the monument has been on the blink for months, and the state's Division of General Services isn't sure why. Spokeswoman Diane Holley-Brown said the division currently is in the process of hiring an architectural and engineering firm to find the problem.
P. Joseph Mullins, the West Virginia sculptor who designed the monument, blames the issues on "structural problems" within state government. He said the veterans' memorial is the "foster child" of the Capitol complex, with several agencies charged with its upkeep but no one very interested in its well being.
Officials contend the monument is not being ignored.
Sue Chapman, business manager for the General Services division, said workers conduct a walkthrough of the area every day as part of their campus-wide sweep, checking for anything that's broken as well as trash and debris.
Chapman said winter weather has prevented workers from cleaning up around the memorial recently, however.
Warner suggested volunteers conduct their own, ad hoc walkthroughs. On Saturday, he asked members to write down their email addresses in a notebook so he could start a new mailing list.
"As you come by here, look. If you think it needs to be cleaned up, send an email to everybody," he said. "No publicity, no organization."