Garrett McKay dipped his brush in a bucket of water and began scrubbing the dirt from another bright white headstone, this one from a second lieutenant who served in World War I, dying in 1963.
“I know in the winter the headstones do get very weathered,” he said, as the bristles removed grime caked into the engraved letters. “The ones under the trees are really pretty dirty.”
Despite the Saturday morning drizzle, McKay and 20 friends and family members spent the morning at Fort Snelling National Cemetery cleaning the limestone graves of hundreds of soldiers, their wives and the occasional child.
For McKay, who’s from Lakeville but will be a junior at Eastview High School in Apple Valley, organizing and completing a community service project is a requirement to earn his Eagle Scout rank, the highest honor a Boy Scout can achieve.
But it was also personal, he said.
“I just wanted to be able to show my respect for the soldiers,” he said. “I know that they fought for our country and I thought I would return the favor by making their gravestones look nice.”
McKay, who loves history and is especially interested in wars, scheduled the cleaning day to be close to the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the June 6 date when Allied troops began their invasion of German-occupied Western Europe.
For McKay, a member of Troop 205 in Apple Valley, the project was a logical choice, said his mother, Jackie McKay.
“I thought it was a wonderful idea and it would be such a good fit because he’s such a history buff with the veterans,” she said.
While volunteering at the American Legion, Garrett has always enjoyed chatting with veterans. Many don’t say much about their time at war, but he gets them talking, she said.
His 55-member troop has its charter partnership with American Legion Post 1776 in Apple Valley, so members often pitch in there, helping out at the Lent fish fry, at the Memorial Day service and on Veterans Day.
Repaying the soldiers
As he scrubbed, McKay said he kept an eye out for soldiers who had won awards such as Purple Hearts or Medals of Honor.“I know my World War II battles pretty well, so when I see a date [that someone died], I can figure out what battle they were in,” he said.
The soldiers buried in the area being cleaned served in a variety of wars, from the Spanish-American through the Korean War, he added.
After the cleanup, acting cemetery director Donn Christy said McKay did “an outstanding job, him and his friends. Very much appreciated.”
Eagle Scouts occasionally do projects at the cemetery, such as putting wood chips around trees or cleaning projects. The projects “build a sense of community in the kids,” Christy said.
Each year, Fort Snelling staff clean about 5,000 to 10,000 headstones out of the 168,000 overall, Christy said. McKay’s assistance means they can skip this section this year and move on to others, he said.
The 20 volunteers who helped included fellow scouts, family members and friends from band.
Volunteer Noah Brown, who will be an Eastview senior, said the project was a “nice way to repay” the soldiers. Plus, “it fits [McKay’s] personality,” he said.
The point of the projects, which must be completed by age 18, is to develop leadership skills and help the community, said Paul Bergevin, scoutmaster of Garrett’s troop.
Projects should be completely organized by the scout and must not benefit the troop or the troop’s partner organization. They often take a good deal of time, said Bergevin.
“It’s a very big honor [to earn the Eagle Scout rank],” said McKay. “It’s a big part of my life to finish this.”
When Eagle Scouts complete all the requirements, which include earning 22 badges and holding a troop leadership role, they receive a letter from President Obama and recognition from their representative in Congress. A flag is flown in Washington, D.C., in their name, McKay said.
Nationally, just 4 percent of Cub Scouts end up becoming Eagle Scouts, Bergevin said, though rates are higher in his troop — nearly 20 percent.
In Troop 205, eight scouts are working on becoming Eagle Scouts. Projects range from building a bridge at a nature center to cleaning the lights, stage area and catwalk of the Apple Valley High School theater, Bergevin said.
Bergevin described McKay as a “quiet leader” who has been helpful in teaching younger scouts.
After earning the Eagle Scout rank, McKay said he will have learned a lot about leadership and the importance of kindness. “I’ll feel that I’ll have a lot of the skills necessary for life,” he said.