Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
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Tuesday, May 31, 2016
Strangers gather at Washington Crossing National Cemetery to honor vets with no families
WWII Veteran Bob Oettel salutes unattended veterans
Posted: Thursday, May 26, 2016
Seaman 1st Class Raymond Evans was buried Monday.
Seaman Frederick Burkeholder was laid to rest Tuesday.
Neither Navy veteran had anyone at his graveside.
But Thursday afternoon, two dozen strangers mourned their deaths at Washington Crossing National Cemetery.
They included an officer decked out in his dress whites, a 93-year-old World War II veteran and a couple of teens. There were a dozen men wearing baseball caps announcing what military branches or wars they served in and more men in black leather vests covered in patches that bore sentiments like "You're Not Forgotten" and "Bring 'Em Home or Send Us Back."
None of them knew anything about the people they came to honor. Not until the service started did mourners learn the names of Evans and Burkeholder, their military ranks and branches. That was the only information they got. But that was all they needed.
"No veteran should take the final journey alone," said Michael Sasse, who coordinates the monthly service for unattended veterans.
Pastor Peter Gregory reads a blessing
Shortly after the cemetery opened in January 2010, it was deluged with handling the unclaimed cremated remains of veterans, said Bob Castor, who served as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army and now is a firing party leader for the Guardians of the National Cemetery.
Most of the remains came from funeral homes, but others were left by family or friends who, for whatever reason, did not want to arrange or attend a burial, Castor said.
"It's hard to think that a person served the United States of America and wore the cloth of the nation and they had no family — no one to say goodbye to them," he added.
So the national cemetery in Upper Makefield started holding a monthly service for unattended veterans. It holds the ceremony on the last Thursday of every month. Anyone can attend, and typically more than a dozen people do.
The ceremony mirrors the military honors bestowed upon all veterans buried here.
Warriors' Watch Riders provide an escort to a covered shelter with rows of park benches where the riders form a line and hold American flags. A ceremonial urn is placed on a half wall in the shelter.
The uniformed Guardians of the National Cemetery fire a three-volley rifle salute. The bugle wail of taps cuts into the otherwise stone silence during the 20-minute service.
The names of the dead are read. A pastor offers words of comfort.
"Be mindful of the reason we are here," said Peter Gregory, a retired Navy commander and pastor. "We now lay their mortal remains to rest."
On Thursday, two white-gloved uniformed Pennsylvania National Guardsmen folded an American flag into the triangle shape; they then presented it to a cemetery volunteer, who took on the role of family member. The retired flag then is donated back to the cemetery.
The service followed seven other burials that day at the cemetery where as many as 50 people are buried each week, officials said. The unattended veterans service is always the final one of the day.
There is no way to know how many unattended veterans are interred, said Greg Whitney, the cemetery's director. He added that many veteran cemeteries hold similar services.
As many as 10 unattended veterans typically are buried in the cemetery each month, officials said; that only two names were read during this month's service surprised many regular attendees.
In the six years the cemetery has been open, volunteers and employees can recall only one month when the service wasn't held because they had no unattended burials. Then two veterans died the last two days of the month; they ended up being remembered during the following month's service, Sasse said.
Northampton resident and U.S. Marine John Heenan has participated in almost every unattended veteran service.
"From our seat, as the honor guard, we were at least as serious and try as hard as if they were 200 cars," he said. "Sometimes, we think when it's one person we're like the next of kin."
For the last six months, Sellersville resident Bob Oettel, 93, has attended the service as part of the Warriors' Watch Riders. He is an Army veteran who was stationed in France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg during World War II.
"I just can't visualize a soldier being buried and no one coming to his burial," he said. "It makes me feel like I'm giving a little something back."
Marge Weiner is a longtime cemetery volunteer who helps coordinate the unattended service. Her husband is buried in the Washington Crossing cemetery.
She used to try to learn more details about the veterans whose final service she helped arrange. The first ones were mostly Vietnam veterans, she said. Then she started noticing very old and very young veterans. Finally, the experience became too emotionally draining; it got to the point where she said she stopped trying to learn more about the people.
"Why not anymore? It's sad because they're all alone," she said. "I'd rather not know and just honor them."
Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @JoCiavaglia