JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A firefighter who spends his free time cleaning up and restoring the grave sites of local veterans is asking for the community's support to preserve the burial plots of the men and women who fought for this country.
After long days as a firefighter and paramedic for St. Johns County Fire Rescue, Brian Bausch heads to the cemetery.
He has been restoring headstones and graves at Lee Kirkland Cemetery and H. Warren Smith Cemetery in Jacksonville Beach.
He said he first noticed the disarray of the graves in early March when he was in the area looking for homeless people to help.
"The fact that there was dirt covering the face plates and name plates of the veterans and there were no American flags on them, that really bothered me,” Bausch said. "It makes me sad, because I think, 'What if this was my family?'”
So he decided to get his hands dirty.
"I felt that a little bit of elbow grease would take it out,” Bausch said.
He asked the officials at the cemetery for permission to work on the graves, and they agreed.
So when he's not in the line of fire, Bausch can be find on his hands and knees around the final resting place of a U.S. veteran.
"The rest of this was recessed down in the ground. As I pulled this up to raise it, I found the rest of this headstone, and as you can see, I have it tie-strapped together as I have been piecing it together,” Bausch explained. “This is the best I've gotten so far."
He has restored more than 70 grave sites of fallen soldiers and their families, adding an American Flag as a finishing touch.
The mulch he uses is donated by Dirt Cheap in Jacksonville Beach, but all the other materials are on his own dime.
"I consider it an honor to come out here and be able to make their final resting place as nice as I possibly can,” Bausch said. “If it wasn't for gentlemen like this man and all the men out here and the women who stayed home to raise their families, I would not only have nothing, I'd have none of the rights I have right now."
He even takes it a step further, doing research to find the draft cards of the fallen soldiers. The cards say whether veterans were disabled when they left the military, whether they were deployed in any wars and what battles they fought in.
Bausch puts the cards inside hand-made plaques and said he wants people to come to the cemetery and learn a little bit of history behind the names on the headstones.
"I've had a couple family members reach out to me and thank me and ask me to continue what I'm doing, and I'm going to continue searching for families the best I can,” he said.
But Bausch said he doesn't do the work for recognition. He just wants to be a good example for the community.
"I'm just a regular guy, I'm nobody special, I don't do anything special. I have the ability to come out here, and I have the spare time to do it, and I think it's something everybody should do,” Bausch said. "I hope to be an example for even one person out there."
He said the work also gives him some peace from the sometimes hectic experiences of his job, and he hopes it touches the remaining generations of the veterans' families.
"If these family members are still in the area, (I hope) that they find some joy in knowing somebody cares enough to come out here and take care of their family's sites,” Bausch said.
Bausch plans to continue his work and has been meeting with city leaders to get more help with funding and participation.
Anyone who would like to get involved can email email@example.com or help start a social media conversation about Bausch's efforts using #leekirkland.