We need to take care of …our veterans

MAKAWAO Makawao Veterans Cemetery enjoyed distinguished company with Gov. Neil Abercrombie and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard both giving keynote speeches during the Memorial Day service Monday.

While honoring Maui veterans, the ceremony also provided a proper kickoff to a “vigorous undertaking” in restoration work and expansion at the cemetery, Abercrombie said.

“The object here is to establish shrine status,” he said to the crowd of at least 300.

Starting today, BCP Construction of Hawaii will begin a $1.1 million grave restoration project on more than 1,500 gravesites across 3 acres of the cemetery’s 7-acre property.

“In practical ways it means so much, but I think the symbolism is huge and almost indescribable,” Gabbard said of the project’s impact to the Maui community. “Those who were laid here and those who came before us – they are our friends. They are our family so we have to take care of them. It’s important to all of us across many generations.”

The project includes cleaning, readjusting and realigning grave markers; leveling the ground surface; and regrassing about 132,000 square feet of turf, according to a pamphlet passed out by workers with Maui County Department of Public Works at Monday’s service.

Highways Superintendent Eric Yamashige said construction is expected to finish early next year, with expansion work to follow.

Expansion plans call for adding 10 acres east of the cemetery, opposite of Baldwin Avenue, in two phases.

Over the course of the phases, additional parking stalls and roundabouts will be constructed in the new areas. In all, the work will allow the cemetery to accommodate 7,500 ground burial crypts, 2,900 ground cremains and 3,800 columbaria niches.

The additions are sorely needed at the more than 60-year-old cemetery, which has only about 100 plots left.

“It came at the right time,” Yamashige said of the project.

Betty Uwekoolani, funeral director at Ballard Family Mortuary and Borthwick Norman’s Mortuary, said she knows all too well about the lack of space at the cemetery where her husband, father and sister are buried.

Uwekoolani said she sometimes visits the cemetery two to three times a month for burials.

“We come up here so often that it’s almost a second home,” she said.

On Monday, the mother of two military servicemen was talking story with neighbors Leroy Hokoana Jr. and his wife, Marie, who were visiting the gravesite of Hokoana’s father.

The group talked about cemetery plots getting slightly crowded over the years.

“It hurts me because how are we going to have room for future veterans?” Uwekoolani asked. “We need to take care of our families. We need to take care of our veterans.”

Hokoana Jr. also pointed to the full parking lot and Baldwin Avenue, which was lined with cars.

“I wen’ study the layout before I parked so I won’t get boxed in,” he said.

Wailuku resident Kaleo Kubo-Li also was seen visiting the graves of her grandfather and uncle, both buried at the cemetery, in a tribute she has done once or twice a month since 2003 when her grandfather died.

Standing beside her grandfather’s marker on the far side of the cemetery, Kubo-Li said she has seen the cemetery quickly fill up over the years.

“It was all dirt there, and you just see it getting full,” she said.

The last expansion at the cemetery was in the early 1980s, cemetery workers said.

The restoration work will be done in clusters of about 500 gravesites and take about three months to complete. During that time, families will not be able to visit them.

Many of the families at the cemetery did not mind the work and plan on bringing flowers to a temporary remembrance area to be placed next to the Korean War monument.

“It’s not going to affect us. If anything, it’s a positive and beneficial thing,” Hokoana Jr. said of the project.

Paul Laub, president of the Maui County Veterans Council, said he was very appreciative to Abercrombie and Gabbard for their visit to Maui.

He added that he looks forward to the restoration and expansion projects.

Lola Ledbetter, founder of Prayers & Packages, was specially recognized at the Memorial Day service for her volunteer work in sending thousands of care packages to military service members.

Members of Baldwin High School’s junior ROTC posted the colors, and the school’s band played music for the service.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at