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Local 5 - weareiowa.com | Des Moines Local News & Weather | Des Moines, Iowa

'Each one has a story' | Iowans mark the graves of state war heroes

A trio of Iowans has given back to its community by applying for veteran stones for unmarked graves in Woodland Cemetery.

DES MOINES, Iowa — When millions of Americans were told to remain home and limit interactions in public at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, a group of Iowa men had already been working on a solitary project to keep them busy.

They track down the names and information of unmarked Iowa veterans' graves in Woodland Cemetery.

"At the start of the pandemic, we wanted something that we could do safely and to do something to give back to the community," said Mike Rowley. 

Rowley, along with his son and 86-year-old retired Des Moines firefighter Bob Niffenenegger, has sifted through 160 years worth of documents and spent hours researching information to apply for veteran stones for the unmarked graves.

"You know, I'm not a veteran. My father was, and many members of my family were, I've got veterans from nearly every war," said Mike Rowley. "So it's important to me."

Niffenenegger said he's always been interested in history.

"I grew up during World War II," said Niffenenegger. "And I remember Pearl Harbor. I remember the boys leaving to go to the service. And then when I started my work life, I worked with a lot of veterans."

Rowley said the process to identify an unmarked grave and apply for approval from the federal government to mark it is lengthy. 

"Sometimes we'll see a marker that's damaged or we'll see something in the cemetery," said Rowley. "And through the records, we'll see that they're about the right age, or they're in a section like this, a military section."

Rowley said he and Niffenenegger have to sift through newspaper articles, military records, family records, and so on. He needs information to prove to the Veterans Administration that this unmarked grave is that of a veteran.

Since January 2020, Rowley and his team have marked more than 150 graves.

Earlier this month, Rowley's team coordinated with the Children of the American Revolution local chapter to involve them in a service project. They marked the grave of Frederick Wager. 

Many of the veterans are from the War of 1812, the Spanish/American War, World War I, and the Civil War. 

Watch: Central Iowa VA Health Care System holding daily vaccine clinics