Veterans get their due with marker installation

Shown at Hillcrest Memorial Gardens Friday, from left, are Owosso VFW Post 9455 Auxiliary members Karen Horn and Vickie Conrad; Hillcrest owner Adriana McGeehan; and Auxiliary member Elizabeth Dennis.

OWOSSO — For many years, under previous ownership, Hillcrest Memorial Gardens charged more than $500 to install bronze grave markers provided by the federal government for free to deceased U.S. military veterans, but now installations are being done at no cost.

Current Hillcrest owner Adriana McGeehan said she was surprised to learn about the installation charge for the markers, issued by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Other local cemeteries either charge significantly less than $500 or — as in the case of nearby Oak Hill Cemetery — nothing at all for the job.

“I couldn’t believe they didn’t put the markers in for our veterans here,” McGeehan said. “It feels like that’s the least you can do for veterans, after all they’ve done for us.”

McGeehan said after purchasing Hillcrest in February 2019, she found a pile of 15 to 20 grave markers that hadn’t been mounted — either as a grave marker or on the back of an existing headstone. The reason: Those veterans’ families couldn’t afford to pay the $500 installation fee.

“After we took over last year, the first thing we did was install them right away,” McGeehan said. “If veterans are buried in our cemetery, that’s an honor for us. We’re going to make sure their graves are marked and remembered.”

She said Hillcrest earlier this year implemented a policy that veterans markers will placed for free. A small fee is charged for mounting the marker on an existing headstone, because a monument expert has to perform the work, but the cemetery will make sure the marker is installed, even if the family can’t afford it, McGeehan said.

Karen Horn, a member of the Owosso VFW Post 9455 Auxiliary, said she’s very happy to hear about the change. Horn, along with Auxiliary member Elizabeth Dennis, has been fighting what she believes was a too-high installation fee at Hillcrest for 12 years. At that time, local businessman Leonard Krawczyk owned the cemetery.

Horn, who helps place flags on veterans’ graves every Memorial Day, said in the spring of 2008 she walked into the Hillcrest maintenance barn and was shocked by what she saw.

“There on the shelf were all these veteran markers — about 20 to 25 of them,” she said. “Some of them said the veterans served in World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam wars. I was like, ‘What the heck?’ I immediately thought, ‘What can I do about this?’”

Horn approached Krawczyk, but said he refused to change the policy, saying the unused markers belonged to veterans’ families who didn’t pay the fee, and he needed the fee to cover the installations.

Despite repeated efforts, including enlisting the support of the Shiawassee Veterans Affairs director at the time, Krawczyk refused to budge from his position, Horn said. One year, the Auxiliary raised enough money to place the markers on seven veterans’ graves.

On another occasion, a local contractor offered to install the markers himself but Krawczyk refused to allow him on the property, Horn said. Krawczyk passed away in 2015, and his estate continued to run the cemetery until McGeehan took over.

“This should not have happened to our veterans,” Horn said. “I’m delighted with (Adriana). My brother was a veteran, and I know in my heart he knows I did this for him. He would be so pleased.”

“No veteran should have to go without a marker,” Dennis said. “If it’s given to them it should be put on.”

Typically, the veterans markers are ordered by the funeral home handling the arrangements for a veteran, but some people apply directly to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for a marker, McGeehan said.

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