Major Preservation Efforts Underway for HOPE Crew Project at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

Article, written by Victoria Hill, appears in Q2 News. Published July 30, 2014.

CROW AGENCY - Settled below Last Stand Hill at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, headstones mark the graves of more than 5,000 veterans and their loved ones.

A major headstone preservation project is underway at Custer National Cemetery after decades of natural wear and tear. 

"They go through periods of freeze and thaw that deteriorate their condition," explained Christopher Ziegler, chief of resource management at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. "They sink, they settle, they get stained heavily."

It's all part of a new project by the National Trust for Historic Preservation called HOPE, or the Hands-on-Preservation-Experience.

The battlefield is one of the first national parks to participate.

"It's very hard work here in the sun," Ziegler said. "The headstones weigh around 150 pounds a piece and many of them are stuck in the ground really good and require lots of cleaning."

It takes one hour to get one headstone dug up, cleaned, settled back into the ground, leveled out.

"Almost 100 years ago, a lot of these were placed here and now they need work and it's a respect thing that we'd like to show," said U.S. Marine Corps veteran Clay Skeens. "It's definitely worth the time and effort. It is a lot of work but like I said, it's worth it."

Skeens, 30, is one of six veterans helping with preservation efforts through the Montana Conservation Corps.

When Skeens arrived to lend a hand, it was only his second time at the battlefield.

"We never got to shake these guys' hands and thank them," Skeens said. "So this is our way of thanking them for their service and just showing people that veterans help veterans whether they are alive or dead."

Crews began preservation efforts mid-July and are scheduled to continue into August. The entire project will be divided over the next four years and eventually all of the stones will receive maintenance.

"The amount of pride that I have in the groups that are doing this work, the amount of pride and satisfaction I see in the work they're accomplishing and how much we are now going to better represent the significance of this site, it just really makes me proud of all the work they're accomplishing," Ziegler said.

A total of $500,000 is budgeted to preserve all of the headstones and monuments throughout the park.