“I met Eddie Irby through a mutual friend. We heard there were some Buffalo soldiers from World War 1 and World War 2 buried at Oaklawn Cemetery. So we decided we’d come look. A few families came out and clean their glaves, but it had grown up so bad you couldn’t tell it was a cemetery. There were so many veterans buried here that we were tripping over their graves. Soon we figured we needed to clean the whole cemetery.
Captain Leon Roberts is buried here. He was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, nicknamed “Red Tails” that shot down bombers. There are a lot of veterans who served in Vietnam who were awarded the bronze star and purple heart. Even the ones who don’t have metals listed are American military and that puts them a rank-and-a-half above everybody else.
With the help of Fran Barber-Bruyn, Neil Bruyn and Sherri Deakle, we formed the Veterans Memorial Recovery Team, a non-profit dedicated to ‘restoring dignity to our heroes interred at Oaklawn Cemetery.’ For three years, we have been here every weekend and have cleared about 8 acres. The grass grows quickly in Mobile. You get halfway to the end, then you have to start back over. We have removed appliances, furniture and bags and bags of trash that people dumped here. We also found several burned cars over the years.
I am passionate about honoring veterans because they are the ones who put us here. Without them, we wouldn’t have this country we have. People need to know our real history, the history of wars and the men who fought them. I served 15 years in the Army and fought in Vietnam. We had hard times in Vietnam. Some came home with horrible wounds. A lot of men died in Vietnam, they just haven’t laid down yet.
My wife asked me why I don’t smile. I forgot how. I tried to shut the door on Vietnam, but there are a lot of cracks and holes. Clearing graves in Oaklawn helps me heal a little. We put an American flag on the grave of every veteran. The white part of the flag is hope. Red is for the blood and blue is for the honor and loyalty of the American soldier.
It doesn’t matter the war we fought, the branch we served in or the color of our skin, there is a brotherhood in the military. I can’t let these veterans be forgotten. With all of its warts and foibles, out country is the best in the world. Our military went to fight in foreign countries to protect our freedom, the only thing veterans ask in return is enough land to bury our dead.”
Bill Atkeison, the Mobile Bay Area 2020 Veteran of the Year. Pictured: Fran Barber-Bruyn, Neil Bruyn, Sherri Deakle and Bill Atkieson