As part of Heritage Month, Rowan Miller held a talk at the Te Awamutu Library about the New Zealand Remembrance Army and what their mission is.
The New Zealand Remembrance Army, or NZRA, was established in early 2019 and so far has restored 8000 graves of servicemen and women throughout New Zealand.
National Coordinator, retired Major Simon Strombom, had noticed that service graves were falling apart, particularly the ones from World War I, and decided that something had to be done about it.
Rowan Miller put her hand up for the Waipā/King Country project and is the regional co-ordinator for the area, one of 30 throughout the nation.
Her area covers Aria, Kihikihi, Ōtorohanga, Piopio, Pirongia, Te Awamutu and Te Kūiti cemeteries.
On Saturday the Waipā/King Country Remembrance Army hosted a working bee at Kihikihi cemetery to clean the service graves. This weekend they will head to the Ōtorohanga cemetery.
"The main idea behind it is to restore and clean all service graves in New Zealand," said Rowan.
"We're finding, especially with the 100-year-old ones that there's no family left or the families have moved away and just don't come back or don't even know that it's there.
"I take a bit of a unique approach in that not only do I look at service graves that are identifiable as an RSA plaque or a headstone. I go along and survey every row in the cemetery and work out who I think might be the right age. Then I take all the information home and research.
"In Ōtorohanga, even though there are not 221 service graves I have identified 221 veterans."
Rowan's grandfather and great-grandfather were veterans and they are buried in the Te Kūiti service cemetery.
"I always keep an eye on their graves but if I'm going to look after theirs, I may as well go and look after the other ones that are next door as well."
Although it sounds like it's making more work, in the long run Rowan hopes that going the extra mile will help them to get a better picture of how many veterans have been laid to rest in our cemeteries.
In this area, 64 graves have been cleaned to date plus around 30 at Kihikihi when they are finished.
"We started with the smaller cemeteries because they're a bit easier to pick off and then work our way up to the big ones. Te Awamutu is going to be the biggest," said Rowan.
"I've got one of the Cambridge RSA guys coming tomorrow because he wants to see what we do so that they can do Cambridge cemetery."
So far, Rowan has had four cemeteries surveyed.
"I'm primarily focusing on doing the surveys first. I've got some fabulous volunteers who might not be able to get down and scrub graves but they can certainly go along with a pen and paper for me."
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The Waipā/King Remembrance Army has had a fair number of people volunteering.
"We've got the community cadets on board, through the RSA. The RSA are very supportive. Last year we had a bit of momentum and then with the winter it sort of tailed off a bit.
"There's a fair few people putting their hands up. You don't have to come for the whole time - a whole day out there is pretty intense. If you can spare an hour that's great or if you can spare half a day that's great too. Anything helps."
They have cleaned three cemeteries. ŌŌŌtorohanga will be number four and is expected to take two days' work.
"We use a scrubbing brush and water but also we have Bio-Shield which is a fabulous product that has put their hand up to sponsor the whole project nationwide.
"It's an outdoor cleaner that you can spray on then you leave it for about a week or so and it starts to work away at the lichen and the moss, making that easier to loosen off once you come along with your water and your scrubbing brush.
Bio-Shield also puts a coat on the plaque or headstone which is hoped to make it harder for the moss and mould to grow back as fast.
"If you spray [the headstone] with Bio-Shield, the lichen is usually looking for something to drink so it works quite well in the dry conditions because you spray it and it goes 'oh a drink! And then it curls up its toes'.
The summer is the more ideal time for the project and is the busiest part of the year, especially heading into April as they want it all to look tidy for ANZAC Day.
There are three different types of headstone.
"The marble ones take the most spraying and they're the most delicate. If there's lead lettering and you knock a lead letter off, you can't reattach it but they look absolutely amazing when they are done."
There is also the standard granite headstone which can be cleaned by just scrubbing.
The third type is the brass plaques. These can be cleaned with soap and water.
"If you want to go the extra mile, there's a way of using a paste of flour and white vinegar and then sanding it to bring back the brass shine. Just depends how degraded they are and whether they're readable or not."
Rowan hopes that their project will inspire others.
"I think every now and then people get a burst of energy and want to go and do things. I think it's always a good volunteer project to go and clean up some graves and you can find some interesting history in the old cemeteries.
"There's fascinating stories, especially with looking at the veterans you get a sense of how much these conflicts have affected New Zealand. From the Boer War through, we have quite a number of Boer War veterans, which is quite amazing.
"We only sent 6500 volunteers over to South Africa anyway so the fact that I've found at least three, just in the four cemeteries so far is amazing."
Even though Piopio and Aria are only small cemeteries with only 100 to 150 grave sites, they have 30 and 32 veteran graves respectively.
"That's where my family came from so there are lots of stories of family members because my parents come and help. They knew a lot of the people. While we're going around we get stories of what people were like and stuff like that because they didn't necessarily die in the war," said Rowan.
"These are the people who came home and continued to contribute to New Zealand and then passed away. We just want to honour them as much as the commonwealth war graves commission honours the ones that are overseas."
The Ōtorohanga cemetery working bees will be at 10.30am Saturday, February 29 and 10am Saturday, March 7.
For more information head to their Facebook page Waipā/King Country Remembrance Army.