GREENFIELD – 1969. A car barreling along at 70 miles per hour, its driver suffering a heart attack. The car struck Rick Brown, shattering his leg in 137 places. It broke his back, too, in four spots — though Brown wouldn’t learn that until decades later.
Brown was a solider at the time, a U.S. Army staff sergeant. He recovered from the injuries at William Beaumont Army Medical Center in El Paso, Texas, and went on to Vietnam in 1971 to serve his country.
Brown didn’t let the crash stop him back then, and he doesn’t let it stop him now.
Despite the wheelchair, despite the pain, the Greenfield resident has a mission from which he won’t waver: he spends his time and money painstakingly restoring the bronze and stone markings on the graves of other veterans in Indiana and nearby states at no cost to the veterans’ families.
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He’s driven by the same desire to serve that took him overseas during the war — when his injuries could have allowed him to stay home instead — and this summer, that desire was recognized by those who understand it best.
Indiana’s chapter of Disabled American Veterans honored Brown for his dedication to his fellow servicemen and women, awarding him the title of 2017 Disabled Veteran of the Year. The honor means Brown will be named a finalist for the national Disabled Veteran of the Year award.
The group, which provides professional support to more than 18,000 Hoosier veterans with disabilities, looks for individuals who go above and beyond in their efforts to do something for others, said state adjutant Kevin Coley.
And Brown — with his all-terrain wheelchair, his hours beneath the hot sun — certainly fit the bill, Coley said.
Brown purchases his own supplies, drives himself to area cemeteries and spends long afternoons slaving away, working to restore the markers. Some of them, he finds himself, then works to contact the families.
He’s fueled by a need to serve his community and to honor those who served, never asking for anything in return, Coley said.
“The amount of time and effort he puts into this is remarkable,” he said. “It’s not anything he was chosen to do; he saw the need and wanted to do something to make a difference.”
Brown has restored more than 50 military markers this year, including several in Hancock County. He hopes to reach 1,000 by the time winter comes. He’s honored to be recognized by his peers and grateful to have a chance to spread word of his mission.
The work Brown does stems from a national movement to restore and beautify veterans’ graves. Cemetery staffs can’t keep stones and metal markers in the best condition by themselves, Brown said.
But veterans deserve the utmost respect on both sides of the grass, he said.
A few years after he retired from a 20-year career with Simon Property Group, Brown discovered an organization called Mission: Restore Bronze, which fixes up military cemetery markers at no cost to the family of the veteran. Brown reached out to the group’s founder and quickly became the Indiana-area “point man” for the nonprofit, he said.
The first grave marker he restored was his father’s, resting in a Richmond cemetery, Brown said, and he’s followed the same steps to refurbish every grave he’s visited since.
He scrubs the bronze with a stiff brush and chemicals, removing any dirt or tarnish that marred the marker over time. Then, he paints it with a special protective epoxy made for bronze. Once it’s dried, he sands the excess off each letter to make it pop from the stone. He finishes it off with a clear varnish.
He clears away any weeds or grass encroaching on the marker as well, he said. The last step, the most important, is to add a small American flag to the ground near the marker.
Depending on how tarnished and neglected a grave marker has become, the process can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days, Brown said.
He works only in the summertime, on the warmest afternoons: the special varnish he uses needs dry weather and temperatures of 70 degrees in order to dry properly, Brown said.
He’s been to about a half dozen cemeteries in Indiana, including ones along U.S. 40 from Philadelphia to Knightstown, searching for military markers that need a special touch, he said. He takes photos of the ones he thinks could use a polish, then he contacts the next of kin or cemetery management to make sure he has permission to repair the marker.
He doesn’t charge anything, wife Kathy Brown said. He sometimes asks for donations of gift cards to Walmart or Home Depot, where $25 can buy enough supplies to restore three bronze markers, she said.
“He enjoys it so much,” she said. “It gives him some fulfillment.”
But it’s not easy, Kathy Brown said; his physical condition makes restoring the cemetery markers a grueling task.
Since the crash in 1969, he’s suffered a series of medical problems he’s learned over decades all started with that fateful day.
Immediately after the wreck, Brown was given a choice, he said: he could lose his leg and leave the Army, or he could fight to recover and keep serving.
He picked the latter, stayed in a Texas hospital through months of difficult rehab and stayed a solider until 1975.
But about 10 years ago, Brown’s leg, chest and back started to bother him, he said. He went to the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indianapolis, where he said doctors spent two years trying to figure out what was causing the pain.
Medical scans revealed his back was broken in four places during the collision all those years ago, but his original set of doctors didn’t treat it, he said.
So now, diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, he’s had back surgery and more therapy hours than he can count. He can’t walk more than 15 or so feet at once and needs a wheelchair to travel most of the time, he said.
But he’s never wavered from his task of finding the markers and making them the sight he knows the former serviceman or woman deserves.
He uses a special all-terrain wheelchair with him on trips to the cemeteries, though most of the detail work requires him to get on his hands and knees, he said.
He hopes to purchase a small trailer for the chair; he currently loads it on the back of his Jeep, and the sport-utility vehicle can hardly handle the 550-pound chair, the back end sagging with the weight.
Even though it’s difficult work, made moreso by the pain in his back and leg, Brown is adamant that this is his mission now.
He chokes up whenever he talks about the importance of respecting veterans both during their service and long after.
And taking care of their graves is just a small part of that.
“Somebody’s gotta do it,” he said. “It has to be done. Just because a relative has passed, doesn’t mean you stop paying respect to their gravestone.”