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Focusing on Memorial Day

Vietnam veteran Brian Benesh walks through the three Dickinson cemeteries, looking for grave markers of veterans that may be damaged, buried in dirt or covered with weeds.

Vietnam veteran Brian Benesh walks through the three Dickinson cemeteries, looking for grave markers of veterans that may be damaged, buried in dirt or covered with weeds.

He cleans the marker or takes note of the site and moves on.

"My next project is to get the stones back in shape," he said.

For the last five seasons, Benesh placed small American flags on the gravesites of every veteran in nearby cemeteries in observance of Memorial Day.

What is the reason for his dedication?

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"Because it needs to be done. These people have to be recognized and these people have to be honored. Period," he said.

In days leading up to Memorial Day, he cleaned the markers of 760 veterans in the three Dickinson cemeteries, having added 12 from last year.

"We're losing more and more World II veterans all the time," he said.

The total number of flags grows to nearly 800 when he includes the cemeteries at New Hradec, South Heart and St. Pius at Schefield.

"Memorial Day is one day for veterans in those cemeteries to shine, to be on display. You want the markers looking as great as you can."

A veteran is entitled to a U.S. government bronze marker, which lays flat on the ground as a grave marker.

"It has the veteran's name, rank, his branch of service and the era that he served it. That's one of the things a veteran is entitled to when he dies," said Benesh.

"Unfortunately, all the cemeteries here have native prairie grass, not like your front lawn. Over the course of the year, they get weeds, dirt, rocks, just about everything you can image, including a lot of red ants," he said. "When you're not looking, all of a sudden your legs are full of red ants."

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Each year, around 100 flags are lost to the weather. For that reason, Benesh set up a cemetery flag fund at Dakota Community Bank (north and downtown locations.) He welcomes donations to continue the work.

Over the years, Benesh has created his own cemetery master maps.

"Even after the flags are out, I rewalk the cemetery to make sure everybody gets one," he said.

Benesh asks the public to do its part in honoring the veterans.

"We can spend an hour from the whole year going through the cemeteries. We have veterans from every era. Some veterans who served in the Civil War homesteaded here. Of course, we have an Iraq-era veteran. It covers every phase," he said.

Take time to read the inscriptions on the markers and ponder what their sacrifice may have meant to the family, he said.

Benesh found the markers of two sons, who served with the U.S. Navy and were killed in action. Their remains were never found, but the markers were placed between the graves of their parents.

"That's what sacrifice is all about," he said. "The other thing that strikes me is the number of (Dickinson-area) people killed in action. It was much more than I ever thought."

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Within yards of the Navy graves, Benesh found the marker for Matthew Brew (1897-1918). Dickinson's American Legion Post was named after this World War I veteran.

He takes time to read the inscriptions on the stones, revealing something about their military service. OLC means the veteran received the oak leaf cluster; AM stands for air metal; PH stands for Purple Heart and SS stands for Silver Star.

"You've got to remember each veteran was an individual. Each has individual stories," he said.

Benesh is working with Gary Ladbury of Ladbury Funeral Service to obtain replacement markers from the U.S. government. He found one Spanish-American War veteran whose gravestone had broken in half. Another stone was nearly buried in the dirt.

He stumbled upon a small stone covered with weeds and dirt in the St. Joseph's Cemetery. His stone indicated the veteran was awarded the Silver Star.

"I was so glad I found that. I couldn't track down the family, but with the help of Ladbury, he will be given his government marker," said Benesh.

Older people may remember Memorial Day as Decoration Day.

"People would take out flowers and wreaths to decorate the graves of Civil War veterans -- Confederate or Union," he said.

Several years ago, he started a program called "Adopt a Veteran."

"Simply go to the cemetery and take an extra flower. Give it to your child or grandchild and find the marker of a veteran who does not have a flower. Put the flower on that marker, and that child won't forget. You've done something you will feel really good about. The least we can give them is a flag and a flower for one day out of the year," he said.

Benesh also pointed to the five flag poles at each cemetery, featuring a flag from each branch of service and the American flag.

"If people in town can't find the grave of a veteran, call me 24 hours a day. I will tell them exactly where every veteran is or go to the cemetery and I'll show them the grave," he said.

His phone number is 225-8822 or 290-9541.

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