Passionate vet vows to clean all the monuments he can find

MOUNT VERNON, Wash. -- After nearly a quarter-century sailing around the world, a retired Navy man has finally found a home and a new mission.

Rich Sundance's epiphany hit as he inspected the veterans monument in Mount Vernon's town square.

"I walked by the monument here which started my whole focus, my whole effort here in my community," he said. "It was in such disrepair. I mean it looks bad now, but it looked worse then. And I'm thinking, 'I'm going to fix this.'"

Sundance knows how to get things done. He recruited a band of volunteers from the organization he leads, Disabled American Veterans, Chapter 59. He enlisted one of his sons, too.

"We scrubbed and cleaned until is started to look so much better," he said.

But this relatively small cleanup project would inspire a far more ambitious idea. Sundance decided he wanted to find every single veterans monument in Skagit County.

"I'm not going to fix it just here, this little piece of real estate. I'm going to go out and take all the time now that I'm retired and I'm going to put together a team. Teams of volunteers to find out where all the monuments are," Sundance said.

He says the reason is quite simple.

"It's a very emotional thing to try to articulate to you. I made it home. And I'm a very blessed man to have accomplished that," he said. "I just feel it's my mission in life to give back to my community and the people who weren't as fortunate as me."

Sundance believes it's important for people to see and appreciate veterans monuments, parks and cemeteries. And that those sacred places be in good repair.

"We want to keep it clean, keep the spirit alive, because it teaches our children that we fight hard for freedom," he said.

His efforts are a tremendous benefit to financially strapped cities like Mount Vernon, where it's impossible to keep up with all the maintenance projects waiting to be done.

Mount Vernon's director of parks and recreation said Sundance and his volunteers are performing a great public service.

"We can't do it all. As a city government we're just spread too thin," said Larry Otos. "Starting with Mount Vernon, we're happy, we're proud. And then as Rich expands out to even bigger and broader things, I think that's just a great opportunity."

Sundance settled in Mount Vernon in 2005 with his wife and four children. It's the first time he felt solid roots after the vagabond life of a sailor.

"I fell I love with this community, and the community embraced me," he said.

He is heavily involved in local little league, and is an organizer of the city's annual Veterans Ceremony. The observance is popular and has grown dramatically under Sundance's leadership. He also volunteers as a benefits coordinator at the local veterans clinic.

"The Disabled American Veterans, we have a tradition, we have a logo. It's called 'Forget Me Not,'" Sundance said.

Sundance and his volunteers will donate their time cleaning monuments throughout the county. They are seeking sponsors and donations to help pay for supplies and heavier repair work.

They plan to do a more thorough cleaning of the Joseph Berg monument in Mount Vernon's Pine Square, and hope to tackle a much larger veterans monument in Anacortes in the coming weeks.

From there it will be tackling one project after another. Sundance estimates there are dozens of monuments waiting for some TLC.