CANAL WINCHESTER, OH (WCMH) — On a hot afternoon in late June a 71-year-old man pulls his pick-up truck into Union Grove Cemetery. The tailgate on the trailer he is hauling clanks as it hits the ground, and Garry Bird backs his lawnmower out onto the grass. Most people would view mowing an eight acre cemetery as a chore, but Garry wouldn’t miss this for the world.
A proud U.S. Marine Corps veteran, he was called by the draft in 1969. Like thousands of young American men – just boys really – Gary headed to San Diego.
He was trained as a radio operator and machine gunner. Life expectancy for these men during combat was just 38 seconds.
Then he got his orders, go to Vietnam.
A raging, bitter war, and a divisive time for our country. More than 58,000 U.S. service members died in Vietnam, and those who survived often came home to pure hatred. No welcome home. No “thank you for your service.”
“Didn’t think I would survive” Garry recounts.
Just two weeks before he was scheduled to ship out, Garry learned he would miss the war. President Nixon began de-escalation, reducing U.S. combat forces, and Garry no longer had to go.
He knew the fate he had escaped. He recalls seeing a military funeral when he came back home. “I was driving down the road and I saw a military funeral and I pulled off the road and stood there and cried just knowing that it could have been me.”
With that funeral always in his memory, Garry was drawn to this cemetery in southern Franklin County. He noticed the overgrown grass – about 18 inches tall – and when he saw more than 500 military graves, he knew he had to do something.
“I live by a model that says it is easier to ask for forgiveness than to get permission, so I mowed it.”
A full day’s work and then some, but he won’t let anything stand in his way. Not even a stroke four years ago. He now walks with a cane. It’s not easy to get on and off the mower, but it doesn’t stop him.
The first time he mowed he found the grave of his friend, James ‘Flash’ Gordan. Gordan was an Air Force veteran.
Sometimes family members stop by, and Garry promises them that as long as he is able these graves will not be neglected.
This man who once prepared for war, and expected to die now protects the final resting places of those who did. Reminders that we owe so much to so many for our freedom.
Garry describes it as emotional. “Very emotional. Freedom is not free. Somebody paid for it.”
That is what Garry Bird protects.
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