CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE - Vietnam War veteran Vince DePrinzio didn't expect much of a response when he pushed for improvements at a Cape May County veterans cemetery off Crest Haven Road.
DePrinzio said he and other veterans had a certain view of the government after serving in Vietnam.
"We didn't have much faith in our government when we came home. We got a lot of political lip service," DePrinzio said.
That's why DePrinzio, of Middle Township, and about 25 other veterans are happy the Cape May County Board of Chosen Freeholders reacted quickly to their appeal. A major renovation to the Cape May County Veterans Memorial Park and Cemetery is under way just months after they made an appeal to fix up the cemetery.
"I was like, 'You're kidding me.' They're doing what they said they were going to do. A lot of times you just get lip service," DePrinzio, who said a lot of his friends are buried in the cemetery.
It may have helped that Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton is a veteran. It also helps that the new acting director of the county's Facilities & Services Department, AnnMarie McMahon, embraced the project.
"It really bothered me to come out and see this. Some graves had sunk," McMahon said.
The cemetery was created in 1980 on soft ground near the tidal salt marshes, though the high water table was not necessarily the biggest problem. McMahon found the gravediggers were not doing a good job tamping down dirt and were not even lining up markers evenly in their rows. She found cases in which the markers were not put directly over the vaults. She said the first step was dealing with the company that digs the graves, and they were very responsive.
"The problem was there were no parameters before. We have rules and regulations in place, and they know what to expect now," McMahon said.
The project will put all the grave markers in even rows contained in new aluminum borders with plantings and rocks around the base. Asphalt paths between the rows of markers, in bad shape from tree roots and from being driven on, will be removed and replaced with grass.
Power-washing the concrete around the monuments and painting will also spruce up the cemetery. This includes painting rusted steel trash cans red, white and blue. A large anchor and artillery piece will be painted and a brick monument dedicated to Gold Star Mothers may be replaced with one made of granite.
The project will also include split-rail fences in key areas where motorists were cutting corners and killing the grass. The county has also bought 10 benches at $450 each to offer more places to sit. DePrinzio has proposed making them memorial benches where people can contribute to the costs and have their name put on them.
"We can do that. They can put a plaque on the bench," Thornton said.
DePrinzio has also asked for several electric scooters, and Thornton is looking into it but made no promises.
One concern is that some who visit the 4,800 graves use wheelchairs, and with the asphalt paths removed it may be hard for them to get around. McMahon noted Atlantic County's veterans' cemetery in Estell Manor has grass paths and they seem to work -- "but they have better grass." She said once the new grass takes root it should be compacted enough for a wheelchair to roll over it.
Another improvement under discussion is a touch-screen computer visitors can use to find out exactly where the grave is they want to visit.
McMahon, who only took over the Facilities & Services Department seven months ago, said there have been complaints about the cemetery for years but "it always seemed to be a money thing." The costs, however, are not that high. Much of the work is being done in-house by county workers, including Facilities & Services and the Road Department, which will consolidate many signs into one explaining the rules of the burial ground.
The project is getting $68,000 in bond money and another $10,000 budget appropriation. The project will be done in sections over several years. The total anticipated cost was not available.
"It's mostly labor," McMahon said.
Tidying up the gravesites may even cut costs as a lawnmower can be used to mow up to the aluminum border instead of more labor-intensive weed-whacking.
The graveyard has about 180 burials a year, mostly of World War II and Korean War veterans. Some day it will cater more to Vietnam veterans and those from later conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. DePrinzio is happy it will be much improved. After the veterans met with Thornton and McMahon, he said he wasn't expecting much.
"We thought we'd never hear from them again. We are very impressed. They kept their promise and did everything we discussed and even went a couple steps further," he said.
This is the second county veterans' cemetery in the region to get some recent attention. Stricter rules were enforced at the Cumberland County Veterans' Cemetery last year in an attempt to enhance the military aspects of the site.