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On a mission . . . New Zealand Rememberance Army Waitaki Branch members (from left) Peter McLellan, Henry McHoull and co-ordinator Barry Gamble with a finished headstone. PHOTO: GUS PATTERSON

Respect, rejuvenation and education are the principles behind a project to restore the graves of former military personnel in the Waitaki district.

Former soldier Barry Gamble has set up a Waitaki branch of the New Zealand Remembrance Army, a national organisation that has already restored more than 14,000 headstones across the country.

“A lot of the headstones are covered in moss. You can’t even read them,” Mr Gamble said.

“We all love going to Anzac Day and standing there saying meanwhile they are lying in graves that you can’t read the headstones on.”

Before . . . This gravestone at the Oamaru Cemetery had become covered in moss and dirt. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
After . . . Cleaning the headstone revealed the names of former soldier E.P. Willetts, and his wife Veda Elsie Alice. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

It was rewarding to give the headstones a facelift, as all of the people buried beneath them had made great sacrifices, Mr Gamble said.

“Most of them suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, but it wasn’t recognised at the time.

“A lot of them got knocked out by the Spanish Flu – they got home from five years in the trenches and died on the way or after getting home.

“The little bit that we can do by cleaning their graves, highlights what they did and the sacrifices they made.

“It’s just about respecting the guys who have served their countries and been forgotten about.”

For one of the volunteers, Henry McHoull, cleaning headstones was a therapeutic way to cope with losing Daphne, his wife of 45 years, recently.

“I was going through my grieving process and I needed to find something to do,” he said.

“It gives me a real sense of pride and I’m sure these guys would love to see their headstones done.”

The Waitaki branch’s ultimate goal was to record and restore the graves of every former soldier and nurse buried in the 17 cemeteries across the Waitaki district.

“The other side of it is education. Once we get ourselves set up a bit better we will pull schools into it and get schools looking after different areas,” Mr Gamble said.

“It’s the sort of job young people can do.”

However, to clean a headstone, the group needed the permission of the deceased person’s family.

“We try as hard as we can to get permission, but it can take 15 hours to track the family –  and we have 350,000 of these headstones to clean,” he said.

Some people did not even realise they had family members buried in cemeteries in the Waitaki district.

Mr Gamble encouraged family members of former miliary personnel who were buried in the Waitaki district to contact the group and give permission for the headstone to be cleaned, by emailing nzrawaitaki@gmail.com.