Mick Hersey’s cemetery mission spurred by gratitude to his community

Mick Hersey is doing all he can to ensure that names like Levi Cline, Otto Borst, Johnson A. Curtis, David Bleam and William Bishop don’t fade away.

Mick Hersey is doing all he can to ensure that names like Levi Cline, Otto Borst, Johnson A. Curtis, David Bleam and William Bishop don’t fade away.

These men — all American soldiers from past battles — are buried in a small, overgrown cemetery on hilly property owned by Grace Bible Church, three miles south of Port Orchard. Bethel Cemetery, this overlooked bit of landscape, is one of four tiny independent plots that are hidden on acreage around South Kitsap and contain the remains of fighting men.

Those sacred cemeteries, which include Colby, Sedgwick and Fraola, are where you may find Hersey and a group of volunteers on a Saturday. Hersey doesn’t just talk about these soldiers, he works hard to keep their names alive.

Rain or shine, Hersey and a group of volunteers will spend Saturdays mowing grass, clearing overgrown turf and cleaning years of mildew that has blackened gravestones of military veterans who served in conflicts as far back as the Civil War. Many of the gravestones placed on the ground have been hidden by two or three inches of sod and the etched names on them hidden from view.The Bethel site was platted on April 29, 1892, where it accepted remains for burial later that year and up until 2009. The old resting place is not maintained by a cemetery association but is administered by the state.Armed with nylon brushes and a liquid cleaning concoction called “30 Seconds,” Hersey and his group of 20 volunteers from Grace Bible Church restored some of the dignity to the Bethel site by scrubbing mildew from the gravestones.

“We scrub them for about 30 minutes and then rinse the gravestones thoroughly,” Hersey says. When the job is done, the transformation is stark. Their granite surfaces are sparkling, looking as if they’d just recently been placed on the grave site.

To wander among the a gravesites is to step back through more than a century of military conflicts. The earliest graves contain the remains of Civil War soldiers, including a Union soldier from Virginia, which was a Confederate state during those war years.Of the 211 buried at the Bethel site, 22 are military veterans. Eleven of those men fought in the great War Between the States. The well-known local Mullenix family name is well-represented at the cemetery, where many family members have been laid to rest.

Hersey and his revolving band of helpers completed their work earlier this month at the cemetery, but the veteran is planning to organize cleanup projects at other local cemetery sites throughout the summer. Because he’s a patriot and served his nation in the Navy for many years, Hersey says he’s compelled to revive the names of those who honorably served in the military — many of them killed in battle.

Retiring as a senior chief in 1997, the South Dakota native says Washington is his adopted home. “I was on a ship here in Bremerton in 1992, and my last command was up at the naval station at Everett,” Hersey said while tending to a gravestone at the Bethel site.

He shares his patriotism in other ways as well. As a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, Hersey dresses up on Memorial Day as Naval hero John Paul Jones and helps place flags on the graves of veterans in area cemeteries over Memorial Day weekend. America’s now-mobile population — with families often living thousands of miles away — is increasingly unable to care for their loved one’s grave sites. That leaves the job to dedicated vets like Hersey.

“It’s my way to pay it forward,” the retired Navy veteran said. “I was in the Navy for 23 and a-half years. It’s my way of paying back the community for supporting the military. And, of course, the veterans who came before us.”