HEBER SPRINGS, Ark. — Memorials that should be sitting at the graves of more than a dozen Arkansas veterans were instead stashed away for decades and are now part of a cover-up in Cleburne County.
Tucked off Main Street in downtown Heber Springs, between a gas station and Olmstead Funeral Home, more than a dozen footstones were left neglected in a parking lot. Some were left on the pavement, while others were scattered along a retaining wall where they became overgrown by weeds.
All of the grave markers are offered to veterans by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, free of charge. Often the stones are the only way a veteran’s service is acknowledged at their grave.
It is kinda sad,” said Olmstead Funeral Home Owner and Director Waren Olmstead. “You want to get them where they need to be,”
Olmstead said the responsibility falls on families. He explained that he helped families order the footstone through the VA and while the stone is free, he charges families to place them at a cemetery.
“We usually charge $25, $30,” Olmstead said. “Over the years, we’ve just had some for whatever reason nobody ever come to take possession of them.”
The stack happened because Olmstead says he wasn’t paid and he reached out to the families at least twice but never heard back.
“You call and you send a letter but you don’t want to cross the line of bothering someone,” he added.
Olmstead drew the first line 20 years ago when the oldest marker was left in the parking lot. From there, the pile kept growing to 18 forgotten footstones. Each is engraved with the name of a soldier or airmen. Most of those veterans saw combat and fought in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam.
“You can’t just dispose of them,” Olmstead said.
When we spoke to Olmstead, he made it clear each footstone will make it to the cemetery.
“Now it’s just a matter of trying to contact the family to get permission to do that,” he said.
While he said he’s not burying what happened, others are trying to keep this hidden.
After we started asking questions, the American Legion post in Heber Springs volunteered to place the footstones.
During a phone call with Post Commander Ken Wahlgren, he said to me he didn’t want to do an interview and stated, “The families do not know anything about this and that’s the way it needs to stay.”
At the state American Legion level, Commander Doyle Batey says his hands are tied since local posts operate independently and in this case, no one broke any rules.
“I can’t tell the local post what to do,” Commander Batey said during a phone call. “The ball gets dropped too often with so many things and this is one of those things that shouldn’t happen but it does, so I’m sure this is something that is probably going on around the country.”
With so much time passing for these veterans, Commander Batey says there’s no easy solution.
“Is there family left alive? Is there somebody left to contact? It’s a fairly complicated process,” he added. “Does the family even have the last name anymore?”
Commander Batey wants to prevent that by looking at ways local posts can start working with funeral homes so no veteran is overlooked.
“In civilian cemeteries so many of them don’t have military headstones, there’s a lot of them that just never got them,” he noted.
It’s now up to the post in Heber Springs with Olmstead saying he turned over the footstones to them.
“We would much rather that they all be out in the cemeteries,” he added.
Left waiting for the day those fallen heroes will get the final honor they’ve earned.
As of Tuesday the footstones at the American Post in Heber Springs. Commander Wahlgren said he plans to have the footstones place by the end of the month.
To see a list of the names on the grave markers, click here.