May 24, 2015
By: Tom Charlier, Commercial Appeal

More than six months after the ashes of Coast Guard veteran Joseph R. Oakman were buried, visitors to his grave at West Tennessee State Veterans Cemetery found no headstone, just a metal stake with a piece of paper attached.

Personnel shortages in the Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs had resulted in delays in the ordering of headstones for the graves of Oakman and scores of other veterans. Even after the headstones were ordered, manufactured and shipped, they often remained in storage for weeks at the cemetery on Forest Hill Irene Road because there weren’t enough caretakers to set them.

“It got to the point that my mom couldn’t stand to go out there and see a plaque with a piece of paper,” said Billy Oakman, the veteran’s son, who’s a firefighter and emergency medical technician in Brighton, Tennessee.

With Memorial Day 2014 approaching, Oakman grew increasingly desperate in his effort to have his father’s headstone installed — even telling cemetery officials he and some fellow firefighters would be willing to do the job.

Finally, after contacting state Sen. Mark Norris, Oakman got results. Norris, a Collierville Republican and Senate Majority Leader, got in touch with Many-Bears Grinder, commissioner of the veterans affairs department, who delivered quickly. She later sent Norris an email with a picture proving that the headstone was installed in time for the Memorial Day.

“It’s virtually miraculous. We were right on the eve of Memorial Day,” Norris said.

The efforts by Oakman and Norris produced far-reaching results at the veterans cemetery, which is the busiest in the state system, accommodating nearly 20,000 graves and hosting as many as seven burials a day. During the past year, the backlog for headstone installation there has dropped from seven months to about 90 days, said Mark Breece, assistant commissioner of the veterans affairs department.

“We’re ordering them the day we inter the veterans,” he said.

Within six months, the department plans to eliminate the backlog altogether, Breece said.

The primary challenge at the cemetery these days is weather. Rainy weather makes the ground too soft to set the headstones.

The shrinking backlog resulted from a number of improvements, Breece said.

First, the personnel shortage in the department — caused by retirements and other vacancies — has been resolved by filling the positions. Also, Norris helped establish a partnership between the cemetery and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, which regularly sends trustees there to set headstones.

The cemetery also is now fully staffed, Breece said.

Billy Oakman said his father, who served during the Vietnam War and died in October 2013 at age 61, deserved a proper headstone. The elder Oakman’s emphasis on service to country and community inspired his son to become a firefighter.

“He was military through-and-through and American through-and-through,” he said.

Oakman remains especially grateful to Norris. “I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to finally meet a politician that cared,” he said.

For his part, Norris said the main credit lies elsewhere.

“It all came about because of Joseph Oakman,” he said.

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