NAHA, Okinawa, Japan -- They stood in formation, columns of individuals under the hot Okinawan sun. They stood tall and strong as the grit and grime was polished away, restoring their former glory. They stood, not as men, but as memorials of men; rows of white crosses weathering the test of time.
Marines, Sailors, Airmen, military dependents and civilians throughout the island came together to aid in the beautification of the Tomari International Cemetery here, July 29.
Three months ago, Gabriel Vasquez, a boy scout with Troop 112, was one step away from reaching the rank of Eagle Scout, the highest grade a boy scout can achieve. However, the rank carries much responsibility, and the final test before being lauded an Eagle Scout is to organize and coordinate a project that benefits the community.
Vasquez was not sure what that project would be, until he discovered something that both moved and frustrated him.
" When I saw the state of disarray it had fallen into, I felt sad for the veterans buried here," he said. "Right then, I knew in my heart this would be my project."
Established in 1853 by the King of the Ryukyus for Commodore Matthew Perry upon his visit to Japan and the surrounding islands, the cemetery was first used to bury the men who died on Perry's ship during their voyages. After that, the coming century saw many conflicts, all of which contributed to the number of fallen service members in the cemetery.
Despite the cemetery’s historical significance, maintenance slowly became something of a forgotten issue.
"Four years ago, we took over the responsibility of (maintaining) the cemetery," said Donald Allen, post commander of American Legion Post 28. "The grass and weeds reached over the four-foot wall, and nearly all the grave sites were covered."
Every fourth Sunday of the month, Legion members mowed and cleaned the cemetery. But when Vasquez saw the deteriorating condition of the cemetery, he felt more needed to be done for the veterans buried there.
To address the issue properly, Troop 112 and Post 28 teamed up with a motley group of service members from nearly every branch of service. The cemetery was attacked with lawn mowers, hedge trimmers, power tools and paint brushes.
The overgrown grass was cut, the on-site storage shed was cleaned and repaired, the signs were reprinted, and the veterans’ crosses and walkway trim were repainted.
The significant amount of work required on a hot, Okinawa weekend did little to deter the dedicated service members and civilians.
"Sure, it's a Sunday and we're outside working, but there's no reason not to (volunteer)," said Lance Cpl. Ricardo Haynes, a legal clerk with the command element of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit and native of Olathe, Kan. "These are forgotten veterans; it should be expected of us to help out."
Nearly 50 volunteers aided in the restoration of the cemetery. The group included Marines and corpsmen representing the 31st MEU and III Marine Expeditionary Force, Seabees from Marine Corps Bases Japan and airmen from Kadena Air Force Base.
"It doesn't matter what branch of service we're from, not one bit," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Dustin Zimmerman, aerospace ground equipment craftsman with 18th Equipment Maintenance Squadron, 18th Maintenance Group, 18th Air Wing. "There are some headstones here that simply say ‘American.’ It is therefore our job as Americans to honor them, and this is one way to do it."
By the day’s end, the cemetery looked drastically better than before. The veterans’ crosses were shining white in the sunlight, the grass was short and the signs looked like new.
What was once an area that was unlikely to get a second look from passers-by was transformed through the efforts of U.S. service members and citizens. This group was united by one young teenager with a devotion to those who fought and died before he was born.
"The Boy Scouts teach you values that you can carry though life and how to be a responsible citizen," said Vasquez. "I'd like to think that what happened here is what responsible citizens would do without question."
What started as one young man’s idea, ended as a fitting tribute to those who came before, made by those serving today.
"Being out here and working speaks volumes both of the young man who organized this event and the volunteers who helped out," said Allen. "There are some men buried here who probably have no family to come and pay respects. But we're here, because they're all family in service."