MEXICO, Mo. — Cadets Kane Anderson and Tyler Vaughan wander through the toppled and broken tombstones at Elmwood Cemetery, hunting for veterans' graves.
They find markers indicating veterans of the Civil War, World War I and World War II and brush away moss as they try to read faded inscriptions. Many stones are damaged and dirty. Some lean precariously, others are in pieces.
One day soon Anderson, 16, a Missouri Military Academy sophomore from Bismarck, N.D., and Vaughan, 18, a junior from Rockford, Ill., hope they'll be cleaning and repairing the markers.
"They deserve better treatment than this," Anderson says as he surveys the sad landscape.
Eighteen cadets from the private school plan to identify and fix 1,000 veterans' graves in the massive cemetery, where clay deposits in the soil have caused most tombstones to shift.
Because grave sites in the city-run cemetery are owned by the occupants' heirs, cadets and their community service advisers must first try to track down family members to seek permission. It's not easy to locate descendants of men who died in the 1800s, so cadets are embarking on genealogical detective work with help from local Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion posts and a funeral home.
"it would be good to do something good for people who did so much for our country," Vaughan says.
The young men have been investigating the appropriate way to clean aged stones without further damaging them. Ten other cadets plan to rescue neglected graves at Rock Hill Cemetery, a small plot on a gravel road seven miles out of town where confederate and Union Civil War veterans are buried.
The suggestion that cadets make the cemeteries a community service project came in a phone call to Missouri Military Academy math teacher Steve Wolf. He says the cadets' mandatory community service is good for them and for the community and creates a link for the young men, who are in grades six through 12, to history.
"They think about the time and the service the veterans gave," Wolf says. "We're paying it back a little bit."
The Academy, which has 239 students, is not affiliated with any branch of the military and only a small percentage of graduates pursue military careers, President Tony McGeorge says.
The cemetery project, he says, helps them "have a strong connection to the community. They need to give back."
Chuck Rentschler, executor of the estate of his late friend Marvin McCowan, was among the first people to give cadets permission to tend the family's graves. McCowan served in the Air Force from 1942-45.
Rentschler says he hopes other towns will "see what a great idea this is and decide to do it in their communities."
Wolf and Lt. Col. Tim Scherrer, who runs the Academy's community service program, need help spreading news of the project so they can get permission to take care of more graves. They've spoken at Rotary, Kiwanis and other service club meetings.
Family members will be asked to pay for repairs, Wolf says, but if they can't afford to do so, he will seek donations to cover the costs.
Scherrer says the lessons of the project will endure as cadets graduate and leave here.
"They need to understand that they have responsibilities to their community," he says. Future cadets likely will have the same opportunity, he adds: "I don't think we'll ever finish."