Richard Earle's headstone at the Southern Maine Veterans Cemetery. Credit: CBS 13

SPRINGVALE, Maine — For families of Maine’s veterans, the state’s veterans cemeteries serve as a place for reflection and remembrance, but recently one family found the headstone for their veteran was deteriorating prematurely.

“It’s been a little over 7 years that he’s been buried here,” Marilyn Earle, whose late husband Richard Earle served in the Army Air Corps, said. “He was a helicopter pilot and he was in Vietnam.”

Richard Earle is buried at the Southern Maine Veterans Cemetery in Springvale. Like so many of the state’s veterans, his service is honored row by row in what’s supposed to be a uniformed memorial. However, Marilyn Earle feels her husband’s grave site no longer fits in.

“Before it was very nice and the letters were very prominent. There was no trouble reading it,” Marilyn Earle said. “Now you have to go right up to read it, because the black lettering has washed off.”

Marilyn Earle says she first started seeing the black inlay on the headstone chip away a few years ago. It’s now almost completely gone.

Her husband’s stone is also not the only one. Currently, dozens in the cemetery are in different stages of deterioration. It’s something Marilyn Earle says she brought to the attention of the cemetery staff but couldn’t get a clear answer as to how it happened or how to fix it.

“He said, ‘Well there’s not much you can do about it,” Marilyn Earle said. “Then I said, ‘Well I’d like to color it in myself.’ He told me that would be defacing government property and there’s certainly a fine or even jail for that, and so I became intimidated by that.”

That led Marilyn Earle and her family to reach out to the CBS13 I-Team this week. Within hours of contacting the Maine Bureau of Veterans Affairs, we were able to get an answer as to why the deterioration was happening and find a solution for the family.

According to the Bureau, the black inlay on the headstones is painted with a form of water-resistant paint called “lithichrome,” which can fade or chip “in a very non-uniform way” over time.

“Over time, depending on location, conditions and the specific lithochrome paint used, the blackening fades,” the agency said in a statement. “The fading occurs in a very non-uniform way, both within a particular headstone or within a section of the cemetery.”

The headstones are provided for free for veterans buried at the state’s veterans cemeteries by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The state bureau says they’ll now be working with VA to replace Richard Earle’s headstone, so the inlays can once again be read.

It’s a step his widow hopes could help other veterans and their families moving forward.

“Television reaches a lot of people,” Marilyn Earle said. “And people are concerned about the veterans.”

According to the Maine Bureau of Veterans’ Affairs, the replacement of a government headstone or marker comes at no cost, however, a particular set of criteria has to be met. That includes being badly deteriorated, unreadable, stolen or vandalized or having an incorrect inscription.

If the family of a veteran feels that these criteria are met, they should take a photograph and submit it to the Maine Bureau of Veterans’ Services, which can then submit the proper documentation to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to apply for a replacement. To begin that process, call 207-287-3481 or email mvmcs@maine.gov.