Thanks to Laine Moger and Chris McKeen – Stuff
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Members of the NZ Remembrance Army – a volunteer movement based on a Facebook group – visited the Tolaga Bay services cemetery to refurb and clean the grave markers and headstones of veterans buried in the East Coast cemetery.
White paint hisses softly beneath the blades scraping gravestone faces in Gisborne’s Tolaga Bay cemetery.
Pausing between names, ex-serviceman Simon Strombom watches other volunteers tend to each granite plaque in turn.
The group has a saying: Every man dies twice, once physically and then again when a person speaks his name for the last time.
They’ve travelled hundreds of kilometres to stop that from happening, to right what Strombom describes as “our national shame”.
Veterans’ Affairs spends $1.5 million maintaining war graves every year.
Despite this, unreadable names are being lost behind layers of moss and lichen, taking a part of New Zealand’s history with them, as they decay in unkempt cemeteries across the country.
To Strombom, a former army major, preserving the names of fallen servicemen and women is the deepest honour and he has shouldered the responsibility to clean each and every single grave.
But he says his efforts are being stalled by unreasonable bureaucratic standards and people with commercial interests.
“Our history is decaying and being lost right in front of our eyes. We say every Anzac Day: ‘In the going down of the sun, we will remember them’, and we are not,” he says.
Vietnam veteran Bob Derwin drove to Tolaga Bay from Auckland, to scrub the headstone of his fellow soldier, Driver KC Cross who died in a traffic accident months after they had returned from their tour of duty in Vietnam.
There are two types of ‘war graves’ in New Zealand. ‘True’ war graves specifically commemorate soldiers from the first and second world wars. These graves are managed by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage on behalf of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Veterans’ Affairs, a unit of the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) is responsible for the 183 service cemeteries in New Zealand. The war graves in these cemeteries are for all people who have served in any military capacity.
This includes overseas conflicts such as Vietnam, Iraq and Timor, but it also includes veterans who have died on home soil.
Despite the $1.5m assigned to maintain the country’s service cemeteries, cleaning the graves continues to remain the responsibility of family members.
Former army major Simon Strombom has rallied a volunteer army called the NZ Remembrance Army to clean war graves.
The New Zealand Remembrance Army, led by Strombom, is a gang of volunteers eager to help the nationwide quest. The Remembrance Army says Veterans’ Affairs and other authorities have created a lot of barriers when it comes to cleaning graves.
Members must adhere to the strictest of standards: “A standard the people who are being paid to do the job aren’t upholding,” Strombom says.
For one, they are not allowed to clean dirty graves without first gaining family permission.
This is confusing to Strombom who argues it is hard to get the family name off a grave you cannot see or read, almost as difficult as it is to find a family who has died or moved from the area.
The alternative is to leave the graves to decay. That just doesn’t seem logical to Strombom.
Tolaga Bay cemetery is one of the 183 service cemeteries Veteran’s Affairs pays to maintain, and which has fallen into disrepair. Up until 2015, Veterans’ Affairs employed a ‘supervisor of service cemeteries’, a full-time role dedicated to the upkeep and management of all cemeteries.
Stuff understands the role required the employee to spend three months a year driving the length and breadth of the country to ensure cemeteries were up to standard.
But the position was disestablished and a subcontractor was procured to do the same role: Bronze Plaques NZ, run by Chris Fraser.
Bronze Plaques NZ was paid several hundred thousand dollars for armed service graveyard maintenance last year. The contract is for 2015 to 2021, with an option to extend for two years.
Fraser did not respond to Stuff’s attempts to contact him regarding questions raised by the New Zealand Remembrance Army. Instead, he passed the request to Veterans’ Affairs, to speak on his behalf.
Veterans’ Affairs deputy head, Marti Eller, says it is happy with the work Bronze Plaques NZ is delivering.
“We note that many of the graves of service people that are in a poor state are not located in services cemeteries, but instead in public and private cemeteries.
“We appreciate the work that volunteers, including the Remembrance Army, do to help clean and care for these graves, and we look forward to continuing to work with them.”
After cleaning, graves are painted with white enamel paint. Drying times depend on the day, anywhere from half an hour to four hours.
Tolaga Bay service cemetery is one of the 183 cemeteries managed and paid for by Veterans’ Affairs.
A fortnight before Anzac Day, members of the New Zealand Remembrance Army gathered to restore and repair the graves at the request of ex-Army padre and local kaumatua Captain William Gray (retired).
One man had travelled seven hours to tend to the grave of his friend, Kevin Cross, whom he served with in Vietnam. Months after the pair had returned safely after their tour of duty in Vietnam, Cross died in a car crash.
For veteran Bob Derwin, cleaning the graves is personal. But to first-timers, the feeling of scrubbing the paint to reveal a freshly revitalised name is a special experience.
Ex-Army padre and local kaumatua Captain William Gray (retired), wants the graves at Tolaga Bay ready for Anzac Day.
Graves are scrubbed or water blasted before being sprayed with a specialist cleaning product. Next, they are wiped down and then painted with white enamel, until it dries. Drying times depend on the day and can be anywhere from 30 minutes to four hours.
Flat-edged paint scrapers are then dragged across the granite faces, leaving only what’s left in the recess areas carved into the gravestone face.
The final part of the process is to take a white cuttlefish bone to buff any remaining flecks of paint that avoided the scraping process.
An expert who works for the NZDF is impressed: “The homework has been done.”
Overall, the caring for war graves is unusually complex because of how many different layers and organisations are involved.
Alongside Bronze Plaques NZ, specialist subcontractors Cemeteries and Crematoria Collective and the New Zealand Master Monumental Masons Association separately manage both headstone/plaque replacements.
Local councils maintain general upkeep, as do some Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association (RSA).
Strongbom says he has unearthed a gap between all these individual agencies and believes there are no shared standards for cleaning plaques and headstones in services cemeteries.
NZDF disputes this, stating that a Standard of Care agreement exists for nearly all services cemeteries.
During the course of Stuff’s investigation, attitudes towards the NZ Remembrance Army have varied: from outright attempts to thwart cleaning parties, to more welcoming, albeit still bureaucratic, hoops to jump through.
All parties are hoping for a more cohesive approach to maintaining the graves, and have discussed a future direction at two recent meetings.
The meetings included the New Zealand Remembrance Army, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, the Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association, the Cemeteries and Crematoria Collective, and the New Zealand Master Monumental Masons Association.
“These meetings aimed to encourage a coordinated approach, ensure all health and safety requirements are met, everyone understands the complexities involved,” a Veterans’ Affairs spokesperson says.
Bronze Plaques NZ was not at the meetings.
Most agencies are praising the works of Strombom and his team, who are still doing the work for free.
New Zealand Remembrance Army, lead by Strombom, is a gang of volunteers happy to help the nationwide quest to clean all war graves.
In Tolaga Bay, long after the rain clouds have closed in, members of the Remembrance Army finish up the last of the gravestones.
Some left early to avoid the weather but most stayed to the end.
When they arrived, the lichen-stained gravestones were dark and unreadable. As they leave, the name, rank and serial number of servicemen and women beam brightly, each readable from 15 metres away.
To New Zealand Remembrance Army members, it feels like bringing someone back to life.
WHERE DOES THE MONEY GO?
Veterans’ Affairs paid $1,503,000 towards the upkeep of 183 service cemeteries across New Zealand in the 2017/18 financial year.
The total includes $392,000 for repair and development work to subcontractors, one being Bronze Plaques NZ.
Bronze Plaques NZ was also paid $30,000 for inspections of cemeteries and received a share of Veterans’ Affairs $761,000 given to contractors for plaques and headstones, for the same time period.
An annual grant of up to $320,000 was paid to six local authorities.
These are mostly councils, although six services cemeteries are managed by local Royal New Zealand Returned and Services Associations, five by cemetery boards, and one by the NZDF.
The amount is a contribution and is based on cemetery size.
Despite the $1,503,000 assigned to maintain service cemeteries, cleaning the graves, in these and other cemeteries, has always and continues to remain the responsibility of family members of those who are buried there.
While the grant covers maintenance costs, like lawn mowing and other minor maintenance, it does not cover cleaning plaques.