Bronze stars are disappearing from the graves of so many Minnesota soldiers that some veterans officials are urging families to place the memorial markers at home instead of in the cemetery.

In Isanti County alone, more than 200 stars have disappeared from three local cemeteries in recent weeks and similar thefts -- presumably carried out by crooks who plan to sell the stars for scrap -- have plagued veterans' graves in Anoka County.

"It's really unfortunate that there are people among us who are so cowardly that they prey on the people who have demonstrated the greatest bravery," Anoka spokeswoman Martha Weaver said. "That's really pathetic."

Hundreds of families who have learned about the Isanti thefts were stunned, hurt and angry, said Jim Rostberg, director of Isanti County's Veterans Services. "They were very upset that someone could desecrate a grave, taking something from someone who gave so much. ... It just isn't right. You just don't do that."

Every Minnesota veteran is entitled to display a bronze star marker that is slipped on a metal pole so it can be placed on a grave. The small, five-pointed star provided by the state includes a holder on the back for a flag.

"When people serve in the military, they're really writing a blank check to the United States government for any amount up to and including their life," said Rostberg, who served in Vietnam and then in Afghanistan. "Those aren't my words. Somebody else wrote that, but it's been very important to me. Those who go off to the military ... are all willing to give up their safety, to leave their families and their homes and business. They're willing to give up so much to defend this wonderful country of ours. We need to remember that."

Larry Shellito, commissioner of Minnesota's Department of Veterans Affairs, said missing bronze star grave markers have been an ongoing problem. Sometimes they have been removed to make it easier for maintenance crews, sometimes by a rogue teen who wanted a souvenir. "But stealing for scrap metal is a new phenomenon," he said.

"It's sad," Shellito said. "But we're not going to stop handing them out." Veterans usually want only two things: a flag on their coffins and a bronze marker on their graves, he said.

"They fight for their flag," Shellito said. "They want to be recognized for their service to their country. This is what veterans want. They live with memories 40, 50, sometimes 60 years. And they say, 'Hey, this was an important part of my life.'"

It's so important to veterans that Shellito made it one of his priorities to make sure the state agency had a two-year supply of bronze stars to accommodate the 10,000 veterans who die each year.

"It's that important," Shellito said. "If you want a logical reason, there isn't. It's an emotional, personal and internal reason for why it's important to each veteran."

A bronze star marked Jim Hoffarth's grave since he died 12 years ago. But it was stolen almost two weeks ago, just days before the annual Memorial Day celebration that his widow, Kathy, has attended each year since her husband died. She noticed the stars were also missing from nearby graves.

"How could anyone stoop that low to steal from a cemetery and a veteran?" she asked, her voice cracking with emotion. "This isn't just about Jim, Tommy or Winston. It's just that people don't have the feelings for the people who served their country ... who put themselves in harm's way."

Rostberg said the stars, which are valued at about $30, are worth even less as scrap. But that didn't stop thieves from raiding three cemeteries in Isanti County in the past month or so, he said.

One of the larger thefts occurred in broad daylight, at 2:07 p.m. on May 9. Rostberg knows because a visitor to the cemetery spotted two men picking up the markers. "When he approached them, they threw everything in their pickup and took off," Rostberg said.

Shellito said he hasn't heard of other thefts as large as the Isanti losses.

"I don't know what happened in Isanti," he said. "But I sure hope the sheriff finds some garage filled with them, and then they can put some people where they belong."

Earlier this month, thieves stole more than 100 bronze vases from Twin Cities cemeteries. But after a deluge of publicity, the thieves dumped the hot goods in a park. Hoffarth hopes that publicity about the bronze star thefts will stop thieves in their tracks. "Maybe they won't be so brave to go back in there. Maybe they'll stop and think when they hear what people think about this."

But just in case the brazen bandits refuse to be stopped, Chester Dryke may not place a bronze star on his father's grave. His father served in the U.S. Army cavalry for two years.

It would be a shame to see the marker disappear, he said. "It's just disheartening and sad."

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788