DARIEN — The 130-pound, government-issue veterans footstones are sinking in St. John Cemetery.
Then the grass grows over them and they disappear.
The problem is that footstones, not headstones, usually indicate whether a veteran is buried in a grave.
And there are no other records of veteran burials.
Fifteen-year-old AJ Pellicci thinks there should be records.
AJ has been visiting St. John Cemetery since he can recall. His parents regularly took him there to place American flags on the graves of his great-grandfather, Bert Sessa, who served in World War II and Korea; and his grandfather, Gary Sessa, a hospital corpsman who served stateside during the Vietnam War, both in the Navy.
When AJ was about 5, he became a Cub Scout with Stamford’s Boy Scout Troop 9. The Scouts sometimes helped veterans’ groups place flags on graves for patriotic holidays.
So when AJ decided to earn Eagle Scout rank, he had an idea of what he might do for his service project.
“I saw how easily the grass covers the footstones. Once that happens, the footstones are forgotten,” said AJ, now a senior patrol leader with the troop. “I didn’t want that to ever happen, because then maybe the veterans are forgotten.”
He learned that more than just footstones have disappeared. So have many of the original cemetery roads, eliminated to create more room for graves. That makes many cemetery maps moot.
Veterans graves are difficult to find. So AJ is making a map.
For his Eagle Scout project, which benefits Springdale VFW Post 9617, AJ is organizing groups of volunteers, including family members, to walk up and down the rows of St. John Cemetery with clipboards holding sheets of paper charts for filling in row numbers – which AJ devised – plus the veteran’s name, year of birth, year of death, war, branch of service, and rank.
The team checks headstones for any indication of military service, and looks for footstones. Some footstones are visible in the grass. Others are barely visible, and still others are completely overgrown.
“The clue is that the grass over a footstone is discolored,” said AJ’s mother, Alison Sessa Pellicci. “We look for those dried-out patches and pull the grass up to see if a stone is under there.”
The footstones come from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which furnishes, on request, a free marker for the grave of any deceased eligible veteran.
Some veterans’ families choose the flat bronze marker that can be bolted to a headstone. But many families save the headstone for personal information, and request the 2-foot by 1-foot, 4-inch-thick granite footstone for memorializing the veteran’s military service information.
When AJ’s group finds a veteran’s grave, they record it on the paper chart and photograph it. They later enter it into a database and plot it using GPS, a satellite-based navigation system that pinpoints objects on Earth. When the project is finished, cemetery visitors will be able to tap into an app on their phones, enter the name of the veteran whose grave they want to visit, and see where to find it.
But the cemetery is so large that AJ thinks he can map only one-third of it for his project, which is halfway complete.
“We found 750 veterans so far,” AJ said. “There’s an average of 10 per row.”
AJ said he has no idea how many veterans are buried in the 60-acre St. John Cemetery on the Stamford-Darien border.
CT Examiner could not find even the total number of graves. A woman in the St. John office referred the question to the cemetery office for the Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport, which owns St. John, but messages were not returned.
The website www.findagrave.com reports about 18,000 graves at St. John.
Philip Alan Gerard, commander of VFW Post 9617, said he estimates that 2,000 to 3,000 veterans are buried there.
“The cemetery records don’t show whether a person was a veteran,” Gerard said. “Really the only way we know is by the footstone, but not all families request them. And a lot of footstones are overgrown because families are no longer here to take care of them.”
The cemetery will raise a sunken footstone if a family requests it, Gerard said.
He said AJ “is working on a great project” because the VFW would add information to his database using websites that catalog veterans’ graves.
“I’m involved with the Boy Scouts, and when they are looking for Eagle projects, maybe they can continue the work AJ is doing,” Gerard said. “It’s important to raise awareness that there are a lot of veterans buried in our cemeteries.”
Tony Pavia, former Stamford Public Schools history teacher, Stamford High Principal, and co-author of two books about Stamford residents who served in war, said he estimates that 4,000 to 6,000 veterans are buried at St. John – twice what Gerard estimates.
“I’m saying that because St. John cemetery goes back to the Spanish American War. And because 10,000 Stamford people served in World War II alone,” Pavia said. “But those graves would be in cemeteries all over Stamford, and in other towns.
All I can do is guess, because nobody kept records.”
AJ said his team found World War I veterans, born around 1900.
“I didn’t expect to see too many of those,” AJ said. “But we found quite a few.”
“The graves say ‘World War,’” said his father, Anthony Pellicci. “As if there would not be another one.”
Anthony said he was struck by the number of graves showing multiple family members who were veterans.
“We found one with three brothers who all served together,” he said.
There’s a saying among Gold Star families who’ve lost loved ones to war – a person dies twice; once when their life is taken, and again when their name is spoken for the last time.
Alison Pellicci said that idea has come to her on days she helps AJ type names into the database.
“Some of the graves are so old. I say to myself, ‘When was the last time someone thought about this person?’” she said. “We found a veteran’s grave the other day and it was his birthday. We said happy birthday. What was the last time someone thought of him on his birthday?”
Her son had a similar thought.
“Just writing down their name and putting it on a spreadsheet – it almost brings them back again,” AJ said.
Evan Atkins, Troop 9 Eagle Scout advisor, said Scouts trying to achieve Eagle rank put more than 100 hours into their projects. They must propose, plan, execute and manage the project and write a follow-up report.
“Adults who volunteer on a project have to take instruction from the Scout,” Atkins said. “It’s a valuable learning experience and good preparation for life.”
There are Eagle projects all over Stamford, Atkins said. Last year an Eagle Scout built two hay feeders and a rabbit hutch at the Stamford Museum & Nature Center. Other Scouts installed the metal “no dumping” tags on sewer grates, and the white tubes for containing used fishing line at Cove Island Park, he said.
So far AJ and his team have spent 120 hours on the project; AJ said he has done 34 hours himself. His map will be sent to the VFW, cemetery office, Troop 9, and anyone else who wants it.
“We have to remember that the veterans risked their lives for our country,” he said. “If we don’t think about it, it kind of defeats the whole purpose of what they did.”