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Bronze ‘Star:’ Phoenix Man Thanks Veterans By Restoring Their Bronze Grave Markers

On Veterans Day this weekend there will be the usual parades and speeches, as well as the freebies and discounts for veterans as a way to say “Thanks for your service.” But a Phoenix man who never served in the military himself found a unique way to say thanks to those vets who are no longer with us.

“I have a sanding paper attached to a holder, and what I’m doing is sanding left to right on this,” said Tom Pawlak as he repeated the motion, left to right.

“And then I brush on the wax.”

After about a minute, he declared, “OK, we’re done. That’s it.”

And just like that, he turned a headstone from dreary gray, to a deep, gleaming brown with shiny bronze lettering.

“William Slocum,” he read. “He was in Vietnam — bronze star, purple heart. He was born 1947, to 1967 ... Just over 20 years old.”

In the grave next to William lies a Harold Jennings. But you have to strain to read his name, because his headstone isn’t sanded and waxed yet. It looks like concrete — not bronze.

“It’s not supposed to look like that,” Tom explained. “That’s from having hard water sprinkled on it. If you had a black car and you sprayed it with water twice a day for … fifty years on that one, it would be coated with gray.

We’re in Greenwood Memory Lawn, a huge cemetery in Phoenix. In this section, small American flags stand at attention behind each headstone. But no one is tasked with maintaining the markers. So over time they just … fade.

“Over 100 degrees for a lot of days, and it eats up the clear coat on it.”

Then Tom came along.

“I was watching this TV program, and dignitaries were out here. You know, all lined up in a canopy and they’re giving their talks. And they pan down to the marker, and it looked terrible. I go, ‘I can’t let it sit.'”

That marker would be the first he restored in Phoenix since moving here from Chicago.  

“Private 1st Class Oscar P. Austin,” Tom read from the shiny bronze marker. “Jan. 15, 1948. He passed on Feb. 23, 1969. He was a poor black kid from Phoenix. Went to Phoenix Union High School. He was just an average guy. He joined the Marines and went to Vietnam and he saved a bunch of guys. And months later, another fire fight. Marines don’t leave people behind, so he was dragging the second guy back, and somebody was ready to shoot the guy that he had. A grenade exploded, he was pretty torn up, and he jumped in front and took the bullet.”

Tom didn’t know Oscar’s story before kneeling down to clean the marker. But he was curious when he saw something after sanding the letters.

“Medal of honor and purple heart, like, who is this guy, Oscar Austin?”

There have only been 3,517 medal of honor recipients in U.S. military history. So, Tom hopped online to do a little digging. It turns out, Oscar has a Navy destroyer named after him, too.

“USS Oscar Austin. So I just sent a message, I restored the marker, would you like a picture of it?” Tom said. “The commander calls me back. Thanked me over and over for doing it.”

Then that commander started restoring markers, too, starting with his father’s. Tom had his first volunteer for this mission he calls “Restore Bronze”. This was a few years ago. Now Tom says he spends his time helping thousands of volunteers across the country get involved, and restoring not just headstones but other veteran memorials and monuments.

“At the state Capitol I’ve done every name of every soldier that died on the USS Arizona when it was sunk in Pearl Harbor. And when I saw the Iwo Jima one that was all green, I said I’ll donate the wax for that. And I said I’ll come out and wax it, and I found out each statue was 30 feet tall. I said, woah, you’ve got cranes for that!”

By Veterans Day 2018 the goal is to restore the grave markers for every soldier killed in action during the Vietnam war. It’s more than 55,000 soldiers. Then he wants to work on everyone from the Korean conflict; thousands and thousands of people he’s never met and stories he hasn’t heard of.

“I’ve only met about 5 people of markers that I did,” Tom said. “But they’re all memorable - every one of them.”

This weekend, Pawlak will be here at Greenwood — learning some new names.

Annika Cline was born in Germany, raised in California and transplanted to Arizona. She studied at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.Cline produces and reports for KJZZ’s original production, The Show, covering stories from all corners of the Valley as well as bringing listeners a slice of their own community in the weekly Sounds of the City series.Cline also volunteers as an art instructor for foster youths and their families.