Remembering America’s ‘Sleeping Heroes’

By John Jackson
November 11, 2014

“Sometimes even the most extraordinary stories can get lost in the passage of time.”

That’s what President Obama said just last week, when he presented the Medal of Honor to the extended family of 1st Lt. Alonzo Cushing, who was killed in the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg.

Veterans Day is a time for remembering these sacrifices – not just the recent, but also those throughout our country’s history. I am also a veteran, having served 21 years in the Army as a linguist specializing in Arabic and Czech. When I retired in 2001 and settled back in Kansas, I often drove by a cemetery that had many veteran tombstones. I’m a history buff, so one day I stopped to check it out. I noticed that the Civil War tombstones outnumbered all others, and so I started photographing them so I could later research the real stories behind these men.

A few photos turned into a hobby, and a decade later, I’ve documented more than 19,000 veteran gravesites across Kansas and western Missouri. Some might think taking pictures of tombstones is a little odd or morbid, but I like to think of it as making the memory of these people more human than just a stone. As you learn more about their histories, you get an idea of what they were really like.

With more than 19,000 names recorded, I’ve amassed a pretty comprehensive database of such accounts – enough to draw the interest of the Kansas Historical Society and Kansas Department of Education, who are now using my files for a project called Sleeping Heroes. After the Civil War, Kansas earned the nickname “the soldier state” because so many Civil War veterans settled here – and so the Sleeping Heroes project aims to share that history with area students.

When I’m not delving into the details of history, I work at Walmart as an overnight assistant manager. This company has suited me well, and actually, it reminds me a lot of the Army. It has rules, it has traditions and cool ideas, it has processes and a chain of command, just like I did in the military. I’ve held a variety of positions here, but my assistant manager job is my favorite. Working nights, I’m more or less in charge of the store. Any calls that I make, good or bad, are on me.

Having collected so many photos and stories, at this point I’m more focused on my career. One day I’ll carve out some time to travel to ground I’ve not yet covered. But now I’m satisfied with the fact that these memories are being brought to the surface – and especially that they are being carried forward to the people of Kansas and our youth.