It's again cleanup time at Oak Hill Cemetery after vandals desecrated more than two dozen American flags that were respectfully placed on the graves of veterans who served from the Civil War onward.
U.S. Navy and Vietnam veteran Tom Borbe took the Daily Times on a tour of the cemetery on Wednesday's rainy morning to point out the damage. Borbe said he came to the newspaper with the hope of raising public awareness of the incident and that this might lead to the vandals' apprehension.
It's not the first time such disrespect and damage has taken place at veterans' graves in Oak Hill Cemetery, according to Borbe, who has placed American flags annually, along with fellow Navy and Vietnam vet Dave Hulick, for several years. Both men belong to Watertown's American Legion Post No. 189. Borbe served in logistics in Vietnam from 1965-66, with an extended career in the Navy to follow.
"I'm not sure when (the vandalism) happened," Borbe said, noting the flags were placed for Memorial Day and are scheduled to remain in the cemetery through Sept. 11. In total, Borbe and Hulick methodically researched the gravesites of veterans, then placed a total of 700 flags in the cemetery at the respective burial sites. About 25 of the flags were destroyed since Memorial Day, with some of the banners missing and their display sticks snapped off. The vandalism was specific to the cemetery's southeast corner, just up the hill from Riverside Middle School, although Borbe stressed he did not want to place blame on students from the school.
"I'm reluctant to say it's kids, but I'd like to think that adults have more sense, or better things to do with their time," Borbe said, noting the Watertown Police Department has yet to be notified of the incidents. "This has happened before, but it is not a chronic problem. It's more sporadic. I don't know when this year's problem happened and I don't know how they moved through the cemetery. But they would have to conceal themselves while they were doing it."
Borbe said he does not think the desecration of the flags was politically motivated, but was "random vandalism."
"If it's kids, kids have a tendency to boast about things they have done and the identities of the people who did this could come out," Borbe said.
Borbe and Hulick place the flags after they are acquired by their Legion post. The placement of the flags is also made possible through the efforts and contributions of the Sons of the American Legion and the city of Watertown.
Each man takes a half of the cemetery, walks it with flags in hand and sticks them in the turf where they need to be. They look at both sides of the headstones for clues regarding potential military service of the deceased. In some cases, when the headstones are obscured by moss or lichens, the men scrub them to determine if a veteran lies there. Borbe said he will drive through the cemetery when they are done to finalize things.
The damaged flags have not been replaced, with Borbe wishing to show the Daily Times readership the damage.
"The same thing happened a few years ago," Borbe said. "I was going to replace them, but enough is enough and an article about the vandalism is necessary and would make this noticeable. This really bugs me. There is no respect for the veterans or the flag."
Borbe's motivation for placing flags on veterans' graves comes, in part, from his own military service. He said he appreciates what the deceased U.S. military members have done and he feels they deserve, at the least, their country's flag on their graves a few months out of the year.
"They deserve this, but there's just no respect for anything anymore," Borbe said. "It's sad."