A few of Lacombe’s long lost veterans in the Fairview Cemetery had their grave sites tidied up by a visitor paying his respects on Monday.
Eric Dahl, a Drumheller man who restored and cleaned up 300 veteran graves in his own community – a feat that went viral and inspired many to join him – was in the city with his new Memory Keepers Memorial Cleaning and Esthetics business. While he was hired by former Lacombe resident Barbara Hollings to take care of her husband Robert’s, and her own future final resting place, he couldn’t visit the community without taking time to also visit the graves of Lacombians who served, and choosing a handful to clean up.
“I’ve always honoured our veterans and wanted to pay back in my own way so I took it upon myself to facilitate and clean all the veterans’ grave sites in the Drumheller Cemetery, but it wasn’t meant to stop there,” Dahl said.
“I wanted to be able to show other people how I honour veterans in other communities as well, so when I had the opportunity to come to Lacombe, I jumped at the chance.”
What he wasn’t quite expecting, however, was to be so impacted by then LAV III Lacombe Afghanistan Memorial sitting in the Field of Honour.
It was the first thing he noticed upon his arrival, and he got a little choked up reading the 162 names of Canadians killed in Afghanistan – including Lacombe’s own Master Cpl. Byron Greff engraved in gold, the very last Canadian soldier to lose his life there.
“This is incredible…There’s names here I know. – Nichola Goddard, she was killed in combat covering her men. She was a leader,” he said. “I’m so incredibly impressed of the monument to our Afghanistan veterans and our military.”
Becoming a caretaker of veterans graves in the same way school children tend to crosses and grave sites in Europe actually came when Dahl was at a low point in his life. A former alcoholic, he was sober, but unemployed. Bills were piling up, his best friend was gone, and he found himself wandering around in the peace and quiet of the cemetery.
“I had a few tools, and I leaned down to the first veteran and started cleaning. I thought: ‘You think things are tough now – think about 100 years ago and what some of these men and women went through.”
He kept going, and a lady stumbled across him and took a photo of him working.
That photo went viral.
Soon, a community clean up of the remaining veterans’ graves was organized, and volunteers turned out in droves to aid him.
As he said, however, he wasn’t finished there. While he still tends to the veterans’ graves in Drumheller, maintaining “his boys” final resting posts, he wanted to share that with other communities, and ultimately was able to start his own memorial cleaning service business in Memory Keepers using the knowledge he gained while learning how to take care of the headstone and plaques.
As for the cleaning process, Dahl begins with revealing the base of the headstones, some of which have been completely overgrown or covered by dirt, grass clippings and pine needles, or even the odd ant colony.
Once the dirt is brushed away, he’ll use a combination of water and D/2 biological – an environmentally friendly chemical used by the U.S. government to preserve national monuments – and a series of brushes to restore the headstones and plaques to their former glory.
Some take a couple of coats to work out years of dirt, moss and lichen, but once the stone is clean, he’ll decide if touch ups to paint are needed, before covering the headstones with protective sealant to prevent chipping and fading in the future.
If the veteran is buried with his sweetheart, Dahl says, he’ll also clean theirs.
Regardless of how far away from Drumheller he travels to clean up a memorial, however, he’ll always clean up veterans’ gravesites free of charge.
His validation is simply the thanks he receives from the veterans themselves. What also keeps him doing it, however, is a desire to make sure veterans and their sacrifices aren’t forgotten or taken for granted.
“I believe our military and veterans deserve more attention. They deserve more respect, more resources for what they put on the line for us. As civilians, we don’t understand what they’ve done. They go to war and they come back broken….It seems a lot of people don’t care except the veterans themselves,” Dahl said.
“I can tell by (the Afghanistan Memorial), Lacombe cares. They have a real strong sense of patriotism and thankfulness.
“I love it here. I definitely want to come back.”
For more information or to see before and after images of Dahl’s work, visit his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/memorykeepersmemorialcleaningandesthics.