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A Veteran Remembered: Girl Scout on mission to place markers on veterans' graves

Decatur Daily - 12/15/2019

Dec. 15--As the bagpiper's rendition of "Amazing Grace" pierced the silence, Emma Gayle Landrum knelt beside the plot lined with miniature American flags and laid a wreath on the veteran's grave. The 10-year-old read the name on the marker -- Donald S. McFarland Jr. -- and thanked him for his service.

"I just feel honored to do this. I feel honored that I was able to help Mr. McFarland and be here for him. He is my veteran," Landrum said.

For 17 years and four months, the World War II and Korean War veteran laid in Decatur'sRoselawn Cemetery with no marker -- military nor personal. Now, thanks to Landrum, a stone recognizes McFarland's life and service.

"It makes me sad when I think that he was here with nothing at all. You couldn't tell anyone was buried here. It just looked like grass," said Landrum, who participated in the Wreaths Across America ceremony Saturday at Roselawn Cemetery. "It makes me sad to think about all the other veterans here that don't have a marker. That is going to change."

After learning no marker existed at the graves of some veterans at Roselawn Cemetery, Landrum, a Girl Scout who vowed to be "honest and fair, friendly and helpful, considerate and caring, courageous and strong," made securing a marker for at least one veteran her mission.

For the past year, the fifth grader at Priceville Junior High School talked of McFarland and of the other veterans with unmarked graves to anyone who would listen, including her church and the Veterans of Foreign Wars local post.

"She has a heart for this," said Landrum's mother Crystal Landrum. "She had never talked in front of large groups before, especially not large groups of adults, and she was nervous, but once she started talking, you could see her passion."

Emma Gayle Landrum first learned of the unmarked graves during the Wreaths Across America ceremony last year.

On the drive home, she asked her mother and father questions. What does "unmarked" mean? Why don't they have markers? What can we do?

For Emma Gayle Landrum, the issue was personal. Her great-grandfather served in World War I, her grandfather served in World War II and her father is a veteran of the Air Force.

"I thought it was just wrong that the veterans didn't have anything," she said. "I didn't like that they weren't being honored. I feel they need to be honored. They served our country. We need to remember them."

Motivated to make a difference, she acted. For her Girl Scout bronze project, the first step to the gold award, equal to the Boy Scout's Eagle rank, she decided to raise money for a military marker.

"When she first told me what she wanted to do, I thought, 'You want to buy a tombstone?' But that was what was on Emma's heart and what she wanted to do," Crystal Landrum said.

When word of the young girl's mission reached Tammy Kunkel, tears filled her eyes.

"Such a young person, caring about someone they don't know, but, because he's a veteran with no grave marker, she wanted to help, she wanted to do something about it, is very moving," said Kunkel, chair of Wreaths Across America for VFW Auxiliary Post 4190. "To add to that, Emma was sad that she couldn't help with grave markers on every veteran's unmarked grave."

Kunkel, who learned of the unmarked graves five years ago while planning for the first Wreaths Across America at Roselawn Cemetery, helped Emma Gayle Landrum select a veteran.

"Mr. McFarland died in 2002 at the age of 78. He had no family here locally. His mom and sister were the only relatives he had left, and they were in New York and probably could not travel, so he just lay here all those years with no marker and no acknowledgement," Crystal Landrum said.

With the help of her parents, Emma Gayle Landrum researched McFarland's life. She found his birth announcement from Pennsylvania, information about his burial and that he served in the Army during World War II and the Korean War.

Commander Calvin Underwood spearheaded the VFW's efforts to secure a free marker for McFarland, despite not having the veteran's DD-214, a document certifying a service member's release or discharge from active duty.

"If you have the DD-214, the bronze marker is free and you only pay to set it in granite. Without the form, it costs $1,500," Crystal Landrum said. "The problem was a fire burned a lot of World War II records. We didn't have Mr. McFarland's DD-214, but Commander Underwood called Washington, talked to senators and got enough information for the Department of Veterans Affairs to issue the bronze marker."

To raise money to set the plaque, which cost $335, Emma Gayle Landrum made necklaces and bracelets. Using a hammer and letter stamps, she punched words, such as "faith," "hope," "love" and "warrior," into brass tokens.

"She was so committed to this that she was ready to pull out of her personal savings to do enough for two markers. I had to remind her that the whole point of the bronze project, though, is not to pay for it, but to earn it," Crystal Landrum said.

By selling all 50 of the bracelets and necklaces, the girl earned enough money to buy a marker for McFarland and 10 temporary bronze veteran markers to place at other unmarked graves.

"Every veteran that we knew of here has at least something. That makes me happy. That makes me feel good," Emma Gayle Landrum said.

Since she purchased the permanent marker and 10 temporary markers, the VFW has found three other unmarked veterans' graves.

"As of now, we think there are 13 unmarked graves," Kunkel said. "We hope with the help of others and with Emma leading the charge, one day every veteran gravesite will be marked and no veteran will ever be laid to rest and forgotten. We need more people like Emma."

During the Wreaths Across America ceremony, an event that remembers the lives of veterans, volunteers laid wreaths at the sites of the more than 2,100 veterans buried at Roselawn, including the unmarked graves.

To purchase markers for the rest of the unmarked graves would cost at least $5,000.

"They're all going to be done. It's going to happen," Emma Gayle Landrum said. "This means a lot to me. No veteran should be forgotten."

-- or 256-340-2441. Twitter @DecaturLiving.


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