Four years ago, Joshua Katz, a 12-year-old devoted Boy Scout, was at a Memorial Day ceremony at the South Florida National Cemetery in suburban Lake Worth passing out water to those thirsty from the heat. A penny on a headstone caught Katz’s eye.
“I took a picture of it and looked it up because I didn’t know what it meant,” said Katz, now 16.
He learned it was meant as a message to the deceased soldier’s family that someone else had visited the grave to pay respects.
He learned more: A nickel meant another soldier stopped by to visit. A dime meant a soldier served with the deceased soldier and a quarter meant that somebody was there when the soldier died.
While Katz, now an Eagle Scout, understood the practice of leaving coins, he wanted to do more.
“I spent my whole summer to come up with a way to make sure there was some kind of symbol of recognition on their headstones and that all the names were read aloud,” said the suburban Lake Worth resident.
That happened Saturday at the event Katz helped create, the fifth annual POW-MIA-OREE (Prisoner of War, Missing in Action, Outdoor Remembrance Educational Event) at the cemetery.
The event is to show respect for veterans and their families by having the names of every veteran interred at the cemetery read aloud. Also, a custom challenge coin will be placed on each headstone and marker for loved ones, to have as a keepsake to know their loved one has not been forgotten.
“My grandfather was a (Vietnam War) veteran and I didn’t know him very well and I always wanted to,” said Katz, a junior at G-Star School of the Arts for Film, Animation and Performing Arts. “Many people just forget about the sacrifices that soldiers make for people. I want people to remember and recognize the sacrifices they made for us.”
Kevin Ridgeway, assistant director at the South Florida National Cemetery, said the event has gained recognition throughout other national cemeteries that take part in the ceremony.
The POW-MIA-OREE event is held in five Florida cemeteries and will be in three cemeteries in Georgia next year, according to David Katz, Joshua’s dad.
David said his son raises about $9,000 to start each event, then raises $1,200 to maintain each one every year.
“He started with 16,000 coins and now he has about 200,000,” David said of the special coins used. “He was so upset about this. Every soldier should get recognized. I’m beyond proud of him.”
While Joshua was trying to come up with a unique idea to honor veterans, the 10-year Boy Scout used his Scout group for help.
“He said ‘I’m going to send different patrols out to different parts of the cemetery and we’re going to read the names and put the coins out there,’” David said. “He mailed out his pitch and we got a call two hours later from the director of National Cemeteries saying he wanted a meeting.”
The meeting went well, and the event started in 2014.
Kirk Leopard, the cemetery’s former national director, said Joshua’s pitch at the meeting was awesome.
“He had a very earnest appreciation for what our soldiers and sailors have done for America, and he wanted to find a way to express that and give back to the community,” Leopard said. “To see that he’s still doing it now is just an incredible testament to him and his family.”
Greg Hauptner, G-Star’s CEO, said Joshua is totally dedicated to helping veterans.
“He has made helping veterans his top priority,” Hauptner said. “He’s charismatic and the kids love working with him.”
Joshua said he spends about 1,500 hours a year on the event. He does have a social life, though. He’s building a haunted house for his school.
In March, Joshua became the second person to receive the Legacy Keeper title, given to him by Undersecretary of Veterans Affairs for Memorial Affairs Randy Reeves, for his dedication to sharing the legacy of America’s veterans.
College is just around the corner and Katz is still undecided where he wants to go. His first choice is Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota.
“I want to be an animator,” he said. “That’s pretty much it. I don’t have big ideas.”
Tell that to the more than 22,000 veterans interred at South Florida National Cemetery.