ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
On this Memorial Day, many Americans are pausing to place flowers and flags at the tombstones of military veterans. Well, we now have the story of a man who has made restoring those tombstones his mission. Here's Cathy Carter of member station WUSF in Tampa.
CATHY CARTER, BYLINE: A towering oak tree draped with Spanish moss offers little relief from the Florida sun as Andrew Lumish scrubs grime from the headstone of a World War I veteran.
ANDREW LUMISH: It's pretty messy. It's pretty dirty - a lot of elbow grease here.
CARTER: Woodlawn Cemetery dates back to 1888 and is just blocks from Tampa's downtown skyscrapers. The burial ground houses the remains of soldiers who fought in conflicts from the Civil War to Vietnam. Many of the graves are darkened by mold and mildew, and some names inscribed in stone are unreadable.
LUMISH: If you were just walking or driving by, you would just see a weathered, very dirty monument and would have no idea who it belonged to.
CARTER: Lumish started restoring headstones of military veterans five years ago. It all began when the history buff was taking photos at another cemetery and saw dozens of headstones in terrible shape. So far, he's cleaned about 600. Lumish isn't a veteran, but he does own a cleaning company and knew there was something he could do.
LUMISH: At first, it was to respect those who served to preserve our rights to everything that we do today and all of our freedoms. On a personal level, I have friends who served who didn't necessarily make it through.
CARTER: Each Sunday, Lumish packs his car with 25 gallons of water, an assortment of brushes and an environmentally safe cleaning solution. The process can take anywhere from four days to four months to complete. What Lumish uncovers is much more than names and dates etched in stone. As the 46-year-old walks through the cemetery, Lumish points to markers he's already finished. He knows how each veteran died.
LUMISH: A submarine attacked, sank the ship, and everyone on board was killed.
CARTER: But Lumish also learns how these men and women lived. On his Good Cemetarian Facebook page, he posts photos and stories of the deceased. He gets the information from genealogy websites in the library. His Facebook research page has received thousands of hits, including one from Paul Heimel, the county commissioner from Pennsylvania.
PAUL HEIMEL: And I just thought to myself, if a guy in Florida can do this, and we have a commitment to do it, let's give it a shot.
CARTER: This month, Potter County, with consulting help from Lumish, began a project to clean the tombs of veterans buried in the cemeteries there.
HEIMEL: The part that we really need to restore and permanently save is the record of who that person was. This is an opportunity to restore some of the dignity and honor that they have earned.
CARTER: Back at the Tampa cemetery, Lumish kneels in the grass and scrubs a large, ornate tomb. He doesn't have a particular method for choosing which stones to clean but says he plans to get to them all before moving on to other cemeteries.
LUMISH: In the next month, this monument is going to be spectacular. It's going to be a thing of beauty. It's a sad occasion, but there's nothing I can do to change what has happened to some of the people who we lost so long ago.
CARTER: But what he can do, he says, is keep their memories alive. For NPR News, I'm Cathy Carter in Tampa.
(SOUNDBITE OF NICK DRAKE SONG, "ROAD")
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