A lone volunteer's quest to clean every military gravestone at the Drumheller Municipal Cemetery in Alberta is slowly becoming a social movement.

A month ago, Eric Dahl took it upon himself to restore the sheen on each headstone belonging to a fallen member of the armed forces in all three fields of honour at the graveyard.

The unemployed father of five did it to honour those who served, he said, not anticipating any reward.

"They don't have families here anymore. I treat them as family. They're part of our military family," Dahl said,

Much to Dahl's surprise, his good deed convinced others to join up.

CBC paid him a first visit in Drumheller earlier this month. By the time we returned, news of his work had spread more widely via media coverage and social media.  

We no longer found him alone.

Strangers pitch in

"This will be a journey that I do every year," said Betty-Ann Stainbrook, sitting next to a gravestone she had just brushed. "I will be coming here and tending to those that still haven't gotten tended to."

Betty-Ann Stainbrook

Once Betty-Ann Stainbrook heard about Eric Dahl's efforts to clean up military gravestones, she could not help but join in on the task. (CBC/Raffy Boudjikanian )

Stainbrook said some of her own family members have served in the military.

For Grant Kucher, too, there was a personal connection. Shortly after hearing about Dahl, he also found out his great-grandfather and great-uncle, both buried in Drumheller, had served as well.

So, he took it upon himself not only to clean their headstones, but those of total strangers.

"You do try to think of what they were like as a person," he said. "Man or woman, doesn't matter. And you do talk to them, you don't realize it but you actually do."

"I could swear he was standing right there," Kucher said of his great-grandfather. "It almost felt like I knew him for an eternity, just sitting there."

Dahl watches over cemetery

With the help he's receiving from other volunteers, Eric Dahl is hopeful he'll get to every single military gravestone in the Drumheller Municipal Cemetery. (CBC/Raffy Boudjikanian)

Unearthing the past

Dahl, whose own grandfather served in the Second World War, said he knew very little about Daniel Keenan Hume other than that he was a member of the Royal Canadian Navy and a crew member of the HMCS Regina.

Dahl also knew the Regina sank in August 1944, torpedoed off the coast of England by a German submarine.

Hume survived, but was "seriously injured," according to a copy of the Winnipeg Free Press from Aug. 18 of that year.  

The CBC found out a little more information about Hume.

A Prince Edward Island Royal Canadian Legion document recognizes Hume's service with both the Royal Canadian Navy and Royal Canadian Air Force.

It also reveals he was  imprisoned at the Stalag 5 military camp in Germany.

"My grandfather was a prisoner of war?" Dahl asked, overcome with emotion, when presented with the information.

Eric Dahl learns his grandfather was a prisoner of war at Stalag 5 in Germany1:16

"That's an absolute shock to me. I just knew my grandfather was in the navy," he said.

"He was a very quiet, commanding man," recalled Dahl.  

An appreciation of Dahl's work

Just as Dahl is motivated by an appreciation of veterans' sacrifices in his zeal to ensure they have spotless final resting places, so too is he appreciated by members of the community.

Charlotte Chernoff's grandfather, Wilfred Teeple, is buried in Drumheller.

"I would have never thought to do it, to get out there and scrub it," Chernoff said. "I just can't believe that a man would take on all this, to clean all these graves."

Chernoff presented a portrait of her grandfather to Dahl. She's also asked him if he needs any help with cleaning supplies.

"It's absolute total validation for what I'm doing when I can put an actual face to the name," Dahl said, about receiving the picture. "They really aren't just names on a stone, they mean something."

Alberta man cleans veteran's graves to keep memories alive0:50