Metal thieves target veterans’ grave markers

By Theodore Decker

The Columbus Dispatch

Lawnmowers mangle a few each year. Others are misplaced, perhaps stuck in the soil of a nearby grave in a relocation that was meant to be temporary.

Such things can happen to the metal U.S. flag holders that dot the nation’s cemeteries. Military veterans and their families get that.

The thefts, though, are hard for them to stomach and impossible to understand. Who sees these solemn reminders of the cost of war, these tributes to those who served in the armed forces, as a commodity to be pilfered from a cemetery and sold for scrap?

“It’s a place of respect, and that’s disrespect,” said Bob Kimball, who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. “It just shouldn’t go on.”

Veterans have coped with the thefts for a long time, said Kimball, the executive secretary of the American Legion of Ohio’s 12th district, which encompasses all of Franklin County.

The holders used in cemeteries for decades traditionally were crafted from bronze or brass. Kimball said thefts increased in recent years when scrap-metal prices soared and the economy soured.

“I don’t know whether it’s drug-fed or what have you, or people just down on their luck,” said Tim Dunn, the commander of American Legion Reynoldsburg Post 798.

Cemeteries have been victims of all kinds of thievery. Mausoleum window bars have been wrenched free, and memorial vases carried off. Veterans’ medallions, flag holders and other metal memorials haven’t been spared.

“They’re actually taking the bronze government markers for the veterans, not just the flag holders,” Kimball said.

The theft of markers from Silent Home Cemetery in Truro Twp. prompted the township and Dunn’s post to begin anchoring them in concrete.

“For them to pick up that plaque, they’re picking up 16 inches of concrete,” Dunn said.

The markers should command respect, he said. “You’ve got a name, a branch of service, when and where. But bronze is bronze, I guess. It’s kind of like the copper epidemic that the power companies are going through.”

The thieves who stole 100 flag holders — which likely brought them a few dollars each at a scrap-metal site — from one northwestern Ohio cemetery last summer took the time to stick each flag back into the ground.

But there was no such consideration from the thieves who swept through section 108 of Green Lawn Cemetery around Easter, Sue Howard said. A number of vets are buried near her grandfather.

‘The flags thrown all over the ground is what caught my attention,” she said. It took her a minute to realize that the holders were gone. “The whole row was completely missing every one of them.”

Joe Glandon, the general manager of Union Cemetery on Olentangy River Road, said more flag holders these days are made from cheaper pot metal and even plastic to reduce cost and potential theft.

“Companies have stopped mostly making them out of brass or bronze,” he said.

Flag holders at Union still tend to be bronze, likely because the cemetery’s busy location and open layout seem to discourage illicit activities.

“The mowers sometimes tangle with them, (but) we do not have a big problem with (theft),” Glandon said.

Mowers remain the biggest threat in Fairfield County, too, where the Fairfield County Veterans Service Commission still provides bronze holders to families, director Ed Mohler said. Plastic holders break when the flags’ wooden dowels swell with age and moisture, he said.

The Franklin County Veterans Service Commission has used the pot-metal holders for years, more for cost savings than a theft problem, Assistant Director John Warrix said. Some holders also can be attached to headstones with epoxy to make them harder to remove, he said.

Pot metal, a cheap metal alloy, is worthless as scrap, although some unschooled thieves probably don’t find that out until they steal a bunch and try to unload it.

Veterans and their families question how there is a market for such obviously ill-gotten items, although authorities say thieves might be cutting them to pieces or otherwise obscuring them in the loads taken to scrap dealers.

“When you walk in with 100 of them, you know this guy doesn’t know a hundred vets,” Sue Howard pointed out.

Her family hasn’t decided how to replace their grandfather’s holder. When the holders disappear, veterans agencies and cemeteries say they try to help families replace them.

“I don’t mind buying another bronze one,” she said. “But I don’t want to do it every three months, either.”