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60 years later, WWI vet to receive correct headstone in Mitchell

A World War I veteran from Texas is finally receiving the proper recognition for his service thanks to persistence. But it's arriving 60 years after his death. Joseph Robert Ward served in the U.S. Army in World War I and died Sept. 24, 1955. His...

A temporary marker for Joseph Robert Ward has been located at Graceland Cemetery in Mitchell for 60 years. Veterans advocates are in the process of getting Ward a new headstone that properly honors his service in World War I. (Submitted Photo)

A World War I veteran from Texas is finally receiving the proper recognition for his service thanks to persistence.

But it's arriving 60 years after his death.

Joseph Robert Ward served in the U.S. Army in World War I and died Sept. 24, 1955. His final resting spot in Mitchell at Graceland Cemetery has never had the proper headstone to recognize his service to the United States.

Davison County Veterans Service Officer Jessica Davidson said she first became familiar with the case when she took over the position late in 2014, but Davison County employees had been working on the case since 2010. That started a long, arduous process to get Ward the proper headstone.

"We talk about not letting veterans being gone and forgotten," she said. "But in this case, he was gone and he was forgotten. And from my standpoint, as a veteran myself, we can't ever let that happen again."


According to cemetery workers, Ward never had anything other than a temporary marker, one that is now worn and battered after six decades.

"To me, this is something that had to be done," she said. "Because a temporary marker is only that. It's temporary and until we get the real thing, it's not a final closure."

Headstones are provided at no cost for veterans who met eligibility requirements as a veteran. Davidson said she looked at Ward's paperwork and saw the Department of Veterans Affairs denied the request because there was no certificate of release or discharge from active duty. The form, known as DD Form 214, is commonly used to verify honorable active service.

"That form holds the key to just about every benefit," Davidson said. "Without it, you're not going to get very far."

Davidson said she soon decided to make it her mission to ensure Ward's headstone was set. County veterans officials in Laredo, Texas, didn't have any information on Ward, but the National Archives provided the paperwork proving that Ward was discharged.

When the effort was met with a dead end from the National Cemetery Association, Davidson contacted the office of U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., and according to Davidson, Rounds became involved.

From Rounds' office, the case was forwarded to Srey Austin, who is the director of the Black Hills National Cemetery near Sturgis. A U.S. Army veteran, Austin took the original forms and denial notice and facilitated a new headstone for Ward.

"Sixty years is pretty incredible," Austin said. "Unfortunately, that's also pretty heartbreaking, too."


The wait for a headstone is ongoing. A mixup with Ward's date of birth meant a new bronze-plated headstone had to be created and is awaiting installation at Graceland in the coming days.

Ward, who worked carnival concessions for a career, died in September 1955 at age 68 at a local hospital.

"At the carnival, they like to make you keep trying and do one more and one more after that," Davidson said. "He must have had a sense of humor and I think he would have a laugh at all of the work and the trying."

According to his obituary printed in The Daily Republic, he was survived by his wife of Laredo, Texas, and two sisters, who lived in New Jersey and Florida. Despite being from Texas, Ward was buried in Mitchell. Davidson thinks he might have been working a carnival in Mitchell when he died and his family didn't have the financial resources to fund bringing his body back to Texas.

The military records show Ward enlisted in June 28, 1918, and was honorably discharged Jan. 16, 1919, and served in the artillery as a horseshoer-which was someone who provided hoof care for the horses used mainly for pulling artillery and supplies. The horsepower was considered easier to use that mechanical vehicles, especially through deep mud and rough terrain. Ward was also a member of the American Legion and local Legion members were the pallbearers for the funeral, according to Ward's obituary.

The work has special meaning for Austin, who immigrated to the United States from Cambodia at 14 years old. She served for eight years of active duty in the U.S. Army and another four in the reserves and remembers the first time she ever saw the American flag when she arrived in the U.S.

"That's life and that's freedom that I never take for granted," Austin said. "I have a personal and professional obligation to do all I can and to me. That's the least I can do."

Davidson appreciated the chance to genuinely bond with Austin, from veteran to veteran, in their ability to help another veteran get the recognition they've earned. Austin said she wants other family members of veterans to know that she is always willing to help with the proper recognition for a deceased veteran.


"It has tremendous meaning to me. It just shows that there's people who cared," Davidson said. "All the way down the line, people cared enough to make sure that this didn't go on any further. If I was in this position, I would hope others would stand up and do the same for me."

It's not likely to be the last instance for Davidson tracking down a proper headstone. She said she's received a list of seven more veterans who died between 1884 and 1928, including one soldier believed to have fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. The cemetery on the north side of Mitchell opened in 1882.

"We just have to get the information in line and take care of those people," she said. "There will be some more research ahead."

Davidson said she now has a file of World War I documents she keeps that could be helpful in any other cases.

"After all of this, I hope he can finally rest in peace," she said. "I know I'm never going to forget this gentleman's name."

Traxler is the assistant editor and sports editor for the Mitchell Republic. He's worked for the newspaper since 2014 and has covered a wide variety of topics. He can be reached at mtraxler@mitchellrepublic.com.
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