Venerating Veterans

In death, veterans get the honors they deserve

An active U.S. Air Force member kneels to hand a burial flag to Patricia Clark, quietly saying the honorary words, "We offer this flag for the faithful and dedicated service."

William Wallace Clark fought in Vietnam. He died this past July, at 78, after months of his wife of 18 years taking him to frequent VA Hospital visits. Holding her husband's flag, Patricia watches airmen carry her husband's ashes to the columbarium. Thanks to the ceremony, she said she finally has closure.

Of the 33 veterans being honored at the Arizona Veterans' Memorial Cemetery in Marana, on Oct. 28, only four have family present. Active-duty service members fold the flags to present to the wives and grown children sitting on the stage while a crowd of about 100 look on. Many of the veterans being interred, who served during either the Cold War, Vietnam, the Korean War or the Persian Gulf War, didn't have anyone to accept their remains.

They fought in a war, and decades later they died alone. But in death they're remembered when their names are called out in the final roll call during Military Funeral Honors. Young service members from every branch carried the urns to their spot of rest. Older veterans salute from the crowd and stand tall, flying American flags.

"A final resting place for those otherwise forgotten," said Bob Day, a coordinator with Southern Arizona Missing in America Project, or MIAP, to the crowd.

Military Funeral Honors for veterans with anything but a dishonorable discharge are free of charge under the law. The Federal Veterans' Administration covers the cost of $762 to inter each veteran.

Some have family who don't know they're loved one is eligible or how to handle it, said Nicole Baker, Public Information Officer for the Arizona Department of Veterans' Services, or ADVS. And other veterans, many of whom were indigent, homeless or had lost touch with family, have no one to oversee they receive a proper burial.

That's where MIAP comes in. With a nationwide presence, they have interred over 3,200 veterans since their inception in January 2007, 450 of which have been in Arizona. MIAP works directly with the coroner's offices, funeral homes, ADVS and other private, state and federal entities to identify the unclaimed remains of veterans.

Once MIAP identifies remains, they look for family members, even using as a resource, said Shaun Pfund, law enforcement liaison with MIAP.

The MIAP holds two ceremonies a year for veterans who died in Pima and Pinal counties, in April and October, at the Memorial Cemetery in Marana. Felix Salaz received a flag at the day's ceremony, in honor of his father Carlos Salaz, a Navy veteran whose remains were interred at the last ceremony, in April.

Carlos was a cook in the Navy and a champion of the underdog, Felix said. He died of complications from diabetes after two amputations and many weekly dialysis visits. Felix is going to give the flag to his 23-year-old daughter. Her grandfather was her hero, he said.

About 50 members of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association proudly hold flags in honor of the dead who have no family present. They sport leather jackets with patches that boast the branch they served in and the chapters of their motorcycle group. They'll show up to a veteran's funeral with 24-hour notice if need be. The Association is just one of the motorcycle groups here to honor the veterans, along with the Buffalo Troop, Patriot Guard Riders, the Christian Motorcyclists Association and others.

"No veteran gets put in the ground alone," said Roger Gilbert, sergeant at arms for the Motorcycle Association Tucson Chapter.

Although veterans are entitled to a military burial, many ended up sitting on shelves in mortuaries, storage facilities or crematoriums, indefinitely. The group of combat veterans understand how veterans can end up alone.

Living through combat can set people apart, "call it PTSD or whatever you want," said Glen Johnson, executive officer of the Casa Grande Chapter. The MIAP "finds people who get put on shelves."

Casa Grande Chapter Commander Jesse Perez said being a combat veteran is a unique experience that only other veterans can understand.

"We can, without saying a word, understand what we're all about," he said. "I finally found a family that I can belong to."

Most of the people at the cemetery—the veterans, families of veterans, the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, and the active duty Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard—don't know these veterans interred today. But that doesn't change the deference with which they perform the military honors, unfolding and folding the flag, carrying the urns to their final resting place and saluting the fallen.

"We don't need to know anything more than at some point they honorably served their country," said the ceremony's keynote speaker ADVS Director and retired Air Force Col. Wanda Wright. "In death, they have earned the right to be eternally surrounded by their fellow veterans."