WEST COLUMBIA — When 17-year-old Nathan Middleswarth of Pelion was trying to come up with a project to become an Eagle Scout, he wanted to do something different.
Most scouts build a picnic table at a park or a small foot bridge on a hiking trail or other such projects. But Middleswarth decided to catalog every veteran in a large West Columbia cemetery and make sure each one got a flag on Memorial Day, which is today.
“People matter more than a bench or a bridge,” he said. “I’ve always revered veterans and thought they deserved more recognition. This will last and leave a legacy.”
The idea stemmed from last Memorial Day, when Middleswarth’s Boy Scout Troop 518 was placing flags on the graves at the cemetery – West Columbia’s Southland Memorial Gardens. As the scouts moved across the nearly 5,000-grave cemetery, it was apparent that neither they nor the cemetery’s management were sure if every vet had been honored.
“The thing that surprised me was a lot of people didn’t identify themselves as vets” on the gravestones, he said.
As a result, Middleswarth proposed for his project building a database of all the veterans in the cemetery, so no vet would be missed this year.
“He said he wanted to do something that really meant something,” scoutmaster Steven Scheid said.
Scheid and the troop’s other scoutmaster, Eric Cassity, were concerned about the scope of the project. “I didn’t know if he knew what he was getting into or what the end result was going to look like,” Cassity said.
Added Scheid: “We knew it would be a significant endeavor.”
But the scoutmasters gave him the go-ahead and Middleswarth contacted the cemetery. The management was happy to have him do the project.
“We want to honor our veterans and what they have done for us,” said Joann Anderson of Southland, which paid for the flags as well as hot dogs for the volunteers.
Middleswarth organized the troop – as well as other Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts and their parents – into two-person teams to look at all of graves. Over three days in February, the teams fanned out over the cemetery logging the names.
Some were easy because the stones noted that the vet had served in wars from World War I to Afghanistan, or otherwise was a veteran. Others were more cryptic – a discreet emblem on the stone for membership in the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars or other military service organizations.
One of the interesting hints that the troop discovered is that living veterans often put coins on the gravestones of fellow veterans: A penny for someone who served in the military in general; a nickel for someone who served in the same branch of service; a dime for someone who served in the same division; or a quarter if the person served with and knew the vet.
“There are some gravestones that are literally covered with coins,” Scheid said.
Middleswarth then took two weeks in April to assemble a database and registry of the 927 veterans the troop found.
But Middleswarth didn’t stop there. He contacted Pelion master stone carver Ron Clamp of Memorial Design – who carved the World War II memorial in Five Points, the First Responders memorial at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center and other monuments around the Midlands – to make a memorial for the cemetery. Clamp agreed to reshape a 2½-foot piece of black granite left over from another job into a memorial – but only if Middleswarth helped with the work.
“Nathan is paying for it with sweat equity,” Clamp said. “We’re used to training people.”
Because of his efforts, the scoutmasters also put Middleswarth in charge of last Saturday’s flag placement at the cemetery.
In all, the teenager has put in about 400 hours on the project.
“That’s about four times as many hours as a typical Eagle Scout project,” Scheid said.
It all paid off Thursday night. A three-person board judged the project and awarded Middleswarth the rank of Eagle Scout. Only 3 percent of all scouts become Eagle Scouts, Cassity said.
“The purpose of an Eagle project is for a young man to demonstrate leadership,” he said. “It was a much larger project than he anticipated. He ran into problems and he overcame them all.”