FORT ATKINSON, Wis. — Dale Reich frequents cemeteries. But the graves he visits are those of people he's never met, and in lieu of flowers, he brings a bucket, scrub brush and bottle of Dawn.

The 72-year-old Vietnam veteran has made it his mission in retirement to clean the headstones of veterans across Jefferson County and beyond. He's surpassed the 1,150 mark and recently completed nearly 200 at Fort Atkinson's Evergreen Cemetery.

"I love these guys, the veterans here, and the wives who suffered along with them when they got back home again or maybe suffered because they didn't get back home again," Reich said as he washed the inscription of "Edward G. Hausen," a veteran of the Spanish-American War. "They deserve a clean headstone as much as as the guy that served. Mrs. Jones gets one just like Captain Jones gets one."

It all started a few years ago when the Watertown resident went to Oconomowoc to pay his respects to his grandfather, Reinhold, who was blinded by mustard gas during World War I. Placing flowers on his grave at Summit Cemetery, he noticed how dirty the headstone had become, so Reich called Archie Monuments in Watertown to ask the best way to clean it.

"And the nice lady said, 'just get some Dawn detergent and a soft, sturdy brush and get to work and that'll do it.'

"And she was right," he said. "So I did my grandfather's grave and my grandmother's grave. Then I looked around and saw other veterans' gravestones that were dirty and I thought, 'you know, they deserve the same respect Grandpa and Grandma get. So I'm going to get to work.'"

And get to work he did. After finishing at Summit, he moved on to Oconomowoc's La Belle and St. Jerome cemeteries.

His efforts caught the attention of then-Assembly Rep. Joel Kleefisch, who invited Reich to the state Capitol and presented him with a legislative citation.

"Well, I thought 'that's cool. But I've got to quit there because I have done my thing,'" Reich recalled thinking. "Then I thought 'gotcha.' I was hooked on cleaning gravestones.

"I just couldn't sleep knowing that there are dirty gravestones of veterans in this area."

So he moved on to Watertown's Oak Hill and Lutheran cemeteries. Living right across from Oak Hill, Reich cleaned 300 headstones there.

"I walked across the street every night with my 5-gallon bucket 'til I got done," he recalled.

After Watertown, Reich washed 25 markers at Greenwood Cemetery in Jefferson, and this past July, he logged 150 at Evergreen Cemetery in Fort Atkinson . . . despite soaring temperatures and a beating sun.

"I can do about 10 graves an hour if I hustle," he said. "It depends on the status of the grave. Some are very, very bad and some are not too bad. They just need to be scraped, cleaned and kind of polished a little. Some of them have been cleaned before, but it's been years, while some were power-washed but have fallen back into disarray."

Bird droppings, black walnuts, grass clippings, pine sap and dirt all create what Reich calls "a little terrarium." And then there are the green lichens that take up residence in the hollows of the engraved letters and numbers.

Yet, they are no match for Reich. A squirt of Dawn, bucket of water and a lot of elbow grease removes the grime.

"The ones I clean are usually World War I and II; often they lay flat and are especially susceptible to becoming dirty," Reich explained.

Even though Evergreen Cemetery covers 25 acres, cleaning headstones there was easier than at some graveyards because it has water spigots throughout the grounds. Reich's 5-gallon bucket of water goes dry after only two graves, so he gets a workout toting it from spigot to grave and back.

"There's a cemetery in Watertown that just gets a little bit limited," Reich said of spigots. "So I've had to put water in my car and drive it down the road in the cemetery to get to where I had to go. But here, I don't have to do that. Yet, it's just a lot to haul in water, no matter how you put it."

Reich noted that he only cleans the gravestones that are dirty, and periodically will miss one because it is not marked with a flag-holder or service inscription. And cemeteries such as Evergreen are not small.

"I go randomly. I do a walk to get the lay of the land and then start in," Reich said. "I kind of survey the property while I clean graves. And then I go back and I say, 'OK, I've got more here, I've got more there.' It's not systematic, but eventually, I get them all."

Reich estimates that the oldest headstone he has cleaned was that of a veteran of the War of 1812. And the newest: those of servicepersons killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Daily Jefferson County Union reported.

"Sometimes I do extra ones, too, because I'll see they have a child: 'There lies little Susie and she lived five days.' Or maybe it'll be the mother or father of a veteran and they're next door. I am trying to be respectful with them, as well.

And if this is about anything, it is about respect.

Upon cleaning each headstone, Reich walks to the foot of the grave, turns, stands at attention and offers a funeral salute, his right hand rising and then lowering ever so slowly.

"We forget how much of a sacrifice military people make for us, and it isn't just those who die or are wounded . . . Nobody comes back from Vietnam, for example, the same as when they went."

He continued: "The reason why I do this is respect. Many of these guys made greater sacrifices than me and I recognize that and I appreciate it. Every community should show their respect for these veterans and their allies by restoring their markers to a reasonable level of cleanliness."

The reason why I do this is respect. Man of these guys made greater sacrifices than me and I recognize that and I appreciate that.

He said there is nothing more satisfying that this task.

"You're cleaning a gravestone and you realize, 'Oh my God, this guy died in 1943 and he didn't die of natural causes. He was killed and he was young. He may have been only 23. Oh, how heartbreaking. It's just awful.

"So you don't do this for fun, but it is very satisfying."

He wears a T-shirt he designed honoring his father, Fred R. Reich, who spent three years in the South Pacific in the Navy during World War II. The back reads, "Thank you, veterans."

Reich said that by washing away the grime on the gravestones, he is uncovering the past.

"I'm a history teacher, right? So this is a historical museum. And it provides historical information about real life. People who may have lived next door to your family who went off to war and did extraordinary things.

"Out here is a hell of a book. And so I help to uncover information that is hidden, just like a teacher would teach her students how to understand history."

And that "book" does end up in a card catalogue of sorts.

"I have all 1,014 men and women on my computer back home as proof of what I've done," Reich said, adding quickly, "not for anybody else because nobody knows what I did. This isn't going to be in the Guinness Book of Records."

Reich will be moving to Adams-Friendship in September, but he plans to finish Evergreen and then wash veterans' gravestones across town at Lakeview and St. Joseph's cemeteries before he leaves.

And perhaps, after getting settled in, he will tend to some graves around Adams-Frienship, as well.

"It depends," he said. "This takes time and energy, but it's not expensive. It's practically nothing but a little detergent and a little bit of gas.

"Do you want to hear the irony?" Reich asked. "I'm going to be cremated. "I will not have a marker. Nobody can ever clean up my marker because there won't be one for me."

But that's OK, he said, because there are countless more veterans in need of care.

The reason why I do this is respect. Man of these guys made greater sacrifices than me and I recognize that and I appreciate that.

"I would like to encourage others to do exactly what I'm doing in their own cemeteries all over the country. It's a hard sell, for some reason. People say 'it's a great idea, but I don't want to do it right now.' It's just not something people are interested in."

Reich said that when he does die, he does not want his last words to echo those of the late David Cassidy, the lead singer of the Partridge Family: "So much wasted time."

"I don't want to be David," he said.

"I'm a service guy. And I think when God gave me the strength and the time and the interest to do what I'm doing, I just have to keep going," he said. "Yeah, I love golf, but you can't play golf every day. And I don't think God intended for me to play golf every day as long as I am capable of doing stuff like this.

"Anybody could do what I'm doing," he added. "It's just that I chose to do it. Yeah, there's nothing special about me. I'm just the guy that thinks you ought to do something for others while you can."

An AP Member Exchange shared by the Daily Jefferson County Union.