Martin C. Evans

Lost, But Not Forgotten: Twenty Indigent Vets Buried at Calverton

In Uncategorized on January 9, 2011 at 4:09 pm

BY MARTIN C. EVANS, NEWSDAY – Amid the sound of bagpipes and the rattle of drums, ushered by kilted pipers past the solemn salutes of hundreds of well-wishers, the remains of 20 indigent U.S. military veterans were carried to their final resting places at Calverton National Cemetery Saturday.

The burial, attended by Reps. Steve Israel (D-Dix Hills) and Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), was the largest interment of unclaimed remains at any local veterans cemetery in the nation’s history, according to U.S. Veterans Affairs spokesman Jim Blue. Had they not been identified as veterans, who are entitled to burial in military cemeteries, the dead likely would have been sent to the city’s Potters Field.

The burial of indigent vets drew hundreds of veterans who paid their respects, including L.W. Murphy, a Vietnam veteran from Blue Point.

“These are virtually forgotten veterans who were literally left on the shelf,” said Lawrence Murphy, of Blue Point, who served in Vietnam in 1969 and 1971. Murphy, 62, was one of scores of flag-bearing veterans who formed a human colonnade at the cemetery’s snowbound entrance, as hearses bearing the 20 veterans eased past.

“To have the chance to recognize guys who have been forgotten is an honor.”

Burials done at no cost

The interments were arranged by Dignity Memorial, a nationwide network of funeral homes, after the City of New York asked for help with the burial of indigent veterans who had died there and had gone unclaimed at city morgues, some for as long as three years. Dignity Memorial provided the burials at no cost, said spokesman Chris Marsh.

Only the tiniest bits of these men’s lives are known, gleaned from a variety of decades-old records rendered incomplete or partly illegible by inattentive typists, poor photocopying or the yellowing of time. Records that might have given full military biographies to some of the men were lost in a 1973 fire at the U.S. Military Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, which destroyed 16 million files.

But what records did show was that these 20 men had served their country from the 1940s through the 1970s in a variety of ranks, from private first class and medical field service technician to master sergeant.

Clifford Henry, 58, a former Navy petty officer 2nd class, had been a medical field service technician and a small-arms marksman. His place of enlistment was recorded as Jacksonville, N.C. The record is silent about where he was born, whether he ever married or where any of his relatives might be today.

James Rose was born in 1926 and died July 31. Nothing else – not his hometown, nor where he served, not even his Army rank – could be learned.

Terrance Holliday of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs said the men had gone unburied for so long because it is often difficult to confirm the veteran status of people who die poor and alone. The city, which by law may not transport remains of the dead beyond the city limits, depends on third-party organizations to bring indigent veterans to nearby veterans cemeteries.

Word quickly spread

Despite the anonymity in which the men died, word of their planned burial raced through area patriotic groups in the past week, spurring a larger than expected turnout of well wishers, organizers said.

Along the route the funeral procession took from the Queens border to the cemetery, volunteer fire companies strung huge American flags, and onlookers saluted from highway overpasses. Members of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion Riders, Patriot Guard Riders, Nam Knights MC, US Veterans MC and Patriot Knights MC came out in force.

At the cemetery, several people who stood in the snow, including Bill and Rosetta Araujo, of Glen Oaks, Queens, wondered whether difficulty coping with post-military life had isolated the men.

“They just get lost,” said Rosetta Araujo. She said her husband still struggles with nightmares and bouts of rage related to his Vietnam War experience.

The ceremony drew several parents of Long Islanders killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. As the ceremony ended, members of a military honor guard folded American flags that had draped some of the coffins and presented them to these parents.

Chrystyna Kestler, whose son, Army 1st Lt. Joseph Theinert, of Sag Harbor, was killed June 4 in Afghanistan, said she felt compelled to attend.

“I can hold this flag as a mother for a veteran who did not have family here,” said Kestler, who received a flag that had covered the coffin of Pfc. Miguel Lugo, an artilleryman who served in the 1950s and who died last year. “That is a privilege and an honor.”

  1. What a wonderful and fitting tribute to these forgotten veterans.
    God bless them, and God Bless America!!!!!

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