SHELBYVILLE, Ind. (WISH) — A central Indiana group is restoring tombstones of Hoosier Vietnam War veterans, giving one man a chance to connect with a friend who died in the war.
Many veteran gravestones end up deteriorating over time. But Mission: Restore Bronze Indiana doesn’t want the memory of the soldiers to fade away like the stone’s face. They make the stones shine as bright as the lives of the soldiers they’re dedicated to.
As the group cleaned away the debris built up on veterans’ tombstones, names slowly came into focus.
“It was covered in about 3 inches of dirt,” Judy King said. “You couldn’t even see the cross at the bottom. You couldn’t even see ‘Vietnam’ written there.”
King is restoring tombstones for the first time. And one of the names she uncovered was Ricky Allen Pate — a name very familiar to one veteran passing by.
“He says, ‘I’m here to visit Pfc. Ricky Allen Pate,'” King said. “I’m like ‘You have got to be kidding me!’ he goes ‘No, why?’ ‘We have been restoring his bronze on his tombstone.”
“He gave his life for his country,” David Lee said. “It’s emotional for me. I like to tell myself ‘I won the lottery. He lost.'”
David Lee served alongside Pate in Vietnam and says he lost a friend when Pate’s helicopter crashed. Now, as his tombstone is brought back, the memories of their time together are brought back as well.
“Yeah, I get emotional,” Lee said. “I get emotional about it. I mean, I’m glad. I mean, I’m happy. I know he’s probably happy too! That people still respect him and we’re still trying to keep the faith amongst soldiers. They say old soldiers never die, they just fade, fade, fade away. So, Ricky hasn’t faded away yet.”
Now, as Pate gets a greeting from a friend and another farewell from fellow veterans, Lee volunteers to put the finishing touches on his comrade’s grave, making sure he’s set to rest for another 50 years.
“Looks like he’s got everything he needs over there,” Lee said. “He’s got his veteran marker and he’s got a nice tombstone. We got nice people taking care of it. I know he’s well-loved here.”
Lee and King say that they’re going to try to keep doing this as long as they can to honor even more soldiers as time goes on.