BY SOUTHGREY.CA STAFF — Driving past a Durham cemetary, you may have noticed small Canadian flags adorning many of the gravestones on the property. In fact, there are over 500 flags in 14 different cemetaries in the West Grey area, marking the family graves of Canadian veterans and VA nurses who served overseas in various wars and deployments.
In his six-year self-prescribed mission to find and recognize veterans who have passed away but are locally memorialized, retired Assistant Bank Branch Manager, Bruce Atkinson has uncovered over 900 names, painstakingly locating their final resting places or family monuments. Some have died of natural causes, while others were killed in action. Others still, have moved away to live out their lives in other communities. But one thing is for sure — all of them need to be remembered.
There are many stories that accompany the names. Atkinson remembered some of the extremely committed men and women on his list, such as Billy Cooper, a veteran of two conflicts who despite being wounded in the neck, was eager to return to battle following his injury. Although Cooper was not cleared for further action on the front lines, he served out the remainder of his term admirably. Cooper was later known in the community as the bugler at numerous Legion events and remembrances, including Bruce's own father and war veteran, Jack Atkinson's funeral.
"Some of these veterans have served in more than one armed conflict," said Atkinson, citing the Boer War, Korean and Gulf Wars as well as WWI and WWII as some of the conflicts fought by the men and women on his list. "WWI veterans are especially hard to find," he added.
"One plot has five flags," Bruce continued, indicating the extent of some families' exemplary armed service record. Bruce's family also boasts four sitting members of the Durham Royal Canadian Legion (RCL) membership and auxiliary.
Bruce's wife of 51 years, is equally involved with the Durham RCL. A former long-term care PSW, Alice Atkinson explained the difficult job of finding these people and where they have been finally laid to rest. "Many of them are nurses who are particularly hard to locate," she said. "The names of veterans killed overseas are often found on the side or back of their family memorial stone, making them easy to miss," she also added.
The couple have also engaged local youth, serving their high school community hours, to place the flags on appropriate gravesites. "At first, they didn't understand why the flags were out there," said Bruce. "Once they understand, they think it's a great idea!"
Fighting health issues, Alice's 71-year-old hubby, Bruce Atkinson is passing on the gauntlet of his veteran research mission to the Durham RCL. "The names are recorded in a special book I made up," he said. "My age has caught up with me," he explained. "So I must stop and let someone else take over."
Flags are purchased from a Canadian supplier and replaced every one to two years. Costs are paid for through specific donations made to the Durham Legion. It's a project that Atkinson hopes will continue long after he, himself is gone.
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