By Rick Geffken |
As we mourn the passing of former Vietnam prisoner of war and U.S. Sen. John S. McCain, lesser-known heroes are also being put to their final rest. Were it not for the dedication of Jersey Shore members of the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), the cremains of veterans of World War I and subsequent conflicts might still lie unclaimed in our Two River area funeral parlors.
The “Forgotten” project was initiated by the New Jersey Shore Area Chapter 12 of VVA. Its mission is “to identify those cremated remains of honorable discharged veterans which have been abandoned and left “on a shelf in a funeral home.” Chapter 12, with almost 400 members, seeks to claim these cremains and provide proper military interment.
Startling as it is, “There must be thousands of unclaimed cremains sitting in funeral parlors,” according to Ernie Diorio, Chapter 12 first vice president. Several years ago, members of his group decided to do something about this and began a painstaking and deliberate process of identifying cremains.
Diorio is especially keen on burying veterans who were denied this honor. He served in the U.S. Army and was a mechanized infantryman stationed at Cu Chi in South Vietnam during that war (as was this writer). Once identified, the former servicemen and women are interred at the Brigadier General William C. Doyle Memorial Cemetery, Arneytown, New Jersey, the first state-operated veterans’ cemetery, dedicated in 1986.
For a variety of reasons – no known next of kin, neglect, death of closest relatives – the cremains of veterans are sometimes, well, forgotten. When Chapter 12 started to identify veteran cremains in 2012, Diorio said, undertakers were skeptical at first. “It took us over a year to get just three funeral parlors to let us help,” he said.
Chapter 12 VVA member Richard Gough, from Port Monmouth, served as an inventory management specialist in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam era. “There are almost 120 funeral homes in Monmouth County and anywhere from 50 to 100 unclaimed cremains at each,” he said. “We’re finding that about 20 percent are veterans or their spouse.”
The four or five Chapter 12 members actively involved in the project face the continual challenge of convincing funeral parlor directors of their sincerity and ability.
One of the first successes the group had was with the Ely Funeral Home. “Director Mike Ely was great,” said Diorio who lives now in Manalapan. “We developed a trust with him and he called one day telling us he had over a hundred cremains at his Neptune funeral home.” The John F. Pfleger Funeral Home in Middletown and Timothy Ryan’s in Toms River have also cooperated.
Once they are allowed to access the containers, Chapter 12 volunteers do the tedious research work, much of it online looking for old records. They’re interested in identifying veterans of any war, not just Vietnam. They chase down leads to any remaining living relatives before presenting the funeral directors with a list of all the cremains identified.
One such surviving relative is Audrey Sutton of Keyport. “I was just so thrilled that my brother Don, a Korean War vet, was being honored after all these years,” she said. “I just couldn’t take it in.”
While that can take months, there are several important legal steps in the process. For burial in Arneytown, the State of New Jersey requires a death certificate (DC), a cremains document, proof of active military service an honorable discharge document, and proof of New Jersey residency. After Chapter 12 secures these, they contact Arneytown to schedule a burial ceremony. “We try to get 10 to 12 eligible veterans at a time before we can have a proper interment ceremony with military honors,” said Gough. “This makes it easier on the cemetery staff and the dozen or so members of Chapter 12 we muster for the solemn interments.”
In 1982 Bob Hopkins of West Allenhurst was a charter member of Chapter 12, the first incorporated in New Jersey. During his time in Vietnam he served as an artillery officer and was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds sustained at his fire support base. Hopkins, also the first president of the New Jersey State Council, VVA, describes the common theme of the “Forgotten” endeavor: “(It’s) the emotional connection to the deceased veterans and the desire to see them buried with respect and honor. Funeral parlor operators, veterans’ advocates, legislators (and) directors of state veteran’s agencies – everyone expressed a visceral connection to the deceased.”
The veteran volunteers show up for the funeral service attired in jackets and ties and military-style berets. Many wear their insignia and medals earned during their time in service. Taps, a few prayers, perhaps a word or two from family precede the burials. Tom Phillips, a Holmdel film producer who works in television, created a video featuring clips from a Chapter 12 interment ceremony.
Not all cremains rest in fancy urns; some are in simple cardboard boxes. “To keep expenses down, we work with Home Depot in Freehold,” Gough noted. “We volunteer time with them at their Saturday morning kids’ workshops and they donate lumber for urns. The residents of the Covered Bridge retirement community in Manalapan build the urns in their woodshop.”
Besides welcome donations to keep this important project going, Chapter 12 hopes that funeral directors reading this article will welcome these volunteers to begin identifying the people who gave so much for the country.
The New Jersey Shore Vietnam Veterans working the “Forgotten” project clearly exemplify what the late Sen. McCain once said in a speech to Annapolis graduates: “You will know where your duty lies. You will know.”
The New Jersey Shore Area Chapter 12 of the Vietnam Veterans of America can be reached at PO Box #276, Allenhurst, NJ 07711 or via the email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The tribute video “Forgotten” can be seen here.
This article was first published in the August 30-Sept. 6, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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