When Veterans Die Alone, These Volunteers Step Up

The Marine Corps League of Clearwater, FL were responsible for holding the May Unattended Ceremony at Bay Pines National Cemetery in St. Petersburg, Fl.

Memorial Day is set aside to remember those who died in military service. But a group of military veterans in Florida works all year to commemorate their comrades who died with no family by their side.

Vietnam-era veteran Clifford Leo Bisek died alone, while sitting outside the Tampa motel room where he lived. He had no close family members and no friends nearby.

But a group of strangers made sure he received a proper farewell.

They’re among a group of veterans who hold small monthly ceremonies at the Bay Pines National Cemetery in St. Petersburg, Fla. On the first Tuesday of every month, they gather to pay tribute to their fellow veterans who have passed away without loved ones.

Marine veteran Bob Cannon – volunteer organizer of the monthly ceremonies – is the first to arrive and last to leave the Bay Pines outdoor columbarium.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure that everybody gets a good welcome and send off,” said Marine veteran Bob Cannon, who has organized every service for nearly two decades at Bay Pines. “I’m a Vietnam veteran. When I came back, I had not a very good welcome home.”

Under federal law, every eligible veteran is entitled to a military funeral if the family requests it. When there are no relatives present, the veteran can still be interred at a VA cemetery, but without an individual ceremony. The agency calls it an “Unattended Interment.”

There were 10 such burials in April at Bay Pines. The VA’s National Cemeteries Administration does not track the number of unattended interments nationally, but it operates more than 130 sites throughout the country.

A soldier, sailor, and local hero

Clifford Bisek, a Vietnam Era veteran, in 2010 when he chased a robber off with his cane. Photo courtesy of the Tampa Bay Times.

At Cliff Bisek’s interment, two VA employees carried the ashes of the 72-year-old veteran in a rectangular metal box. Cemetery director Eugenia Simmons held it close to her heart, as she and cemetery worker Terry Clark double checked the paperwork. They slide the box into the niche at the outdoor columbarium.

Simmons signed a form and — in a final gesture — patted the granite stone covering Bisek’s niche.

“Whenever I do an interment, somebody has to say goodbye,” Simmons said.

Bisek was a sergeant in the Army during the Vietnam Era and later served in the Navy. Eight years ago, the Tampa resident briefly became a local hero when he foiled a drug store robbery by chasing away the thief with his cane.

“Safety of the other people comes before mine,” Bisek told the Tampa Tribune at the time. “It has been in my system practically all my life.”

In March, Bisek died from heart disease. Inside his motel room, police discovered old paperwork from the VA, so the county medical examiner sent Bisek’s cremated remains to Bay Pines.

Bay Pines Cemetery Director Eugenia Simmons bids a final farewell to Clifford Bisek during his interment in April. There was no ceremony or family that day.

Simmons said because Florida has so many retirees, it’s common for veterans to die with no family or no relatives nearby.

“We give them a dignified burial,” Simmons said, “and then once the cremated remains are placed, we send information to the family so they know how to locate their loved one.”

‘We’ll always be here’

A half dozen local veterans service organizations volunteer at Bay Pines on a rotating basis to conduct the monthly service for the unattended interments. At the most recent service, the send-off began with a motorcycle “ride-by” with veteran Randall McNabb as ride captain. More than two dozen riders showed up.

“I love these guys,” McNabb said. “They spend their own time and their own dime to get out here and stand for these veterans.”

A bugler plays Taps at the May 2018 Unattended Ceremony where more than two dozen motorcycle riders and member the Clearwater Marine Corps League participated in the ceremony at Bay Pines National Cemetery.

The ceremony is brief. It includes a prayer, the presentation of the colors, and the reading of the name of each veteran who was intered that month. Each name is followed by the ringing of a bell – a Navy tradition. There’s a three-volley gun salute and the playing of Taps.

Sharply dressed in a pressed white shirt decorated with ribbons and medals from past service, Color Guard commander Bill Cona oversaw the service. It’s important to him to be at the cemetery for his comrades, just as he hopes someone will be there for him.

“I don’t really think about them not having anyone around because we’re here, and we’ll always be here,” Cona said,  choking up a little.

Typically at military funerals, the color guard presents a folded American Flag to the veteran’s family. But at these ceremonies, the flag is symbolically handed to a volunteer. Then, it will be used again at next month’s ceremony.

Watch a video of the Bay Pines ceremony here.

The folding of the American Flag and presentation to a volunteer – standing in for family – is part of the ceremony.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

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2018 MacDill AFB AirFest Offers Event App

Blue Angels

The U.S. Navy Blue Angels

The U.S. Navy Blue Angels will streak across Tampa Bay skies this weekend, May 12-13, as the Good Year Blimp motors along at a slower pace for the 2018 AirFest.

Admission is open to the public, free and with free parking at MacDill Air Force Base, 3108 N. Boundary Blvd., Tampa, FL.

To make it easier to plan your visit, MacDill crews created an AirFest App. You can download the MacDill AirFest App or a visitor’s guide for transportation, parking, show schedules and ground displays.

“We get to give back to this community that supports us so much. We get to basically show them virtually everything the Air Force does in a pretty little package – in a two day period,” said Colonel April Vogel, commander of MacDill AFB and the 6th Air Mobility Wing.

This Saturday and Sunday, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., you can watch the Blue Angels, an F-22 Raptor Demo and Special Operations Para-Commandos Flag Jump plus a wide variety of aircraft performance including a P-51, a single-seat fighter known as a Mustang.

Visitors also can explore 18 different aircraft on the tarmac from a Cessna to a super-tanker and even experience what it’s like aboard the U.S. Navy Nimitz through virtual reality.

Vogel said virtually every airman has worked to make the free community event possible.

“Putting on an airshow is quite a monumental task. So, we’ve been working on this for better part of a year mostly because we want to make sure it’s as great as event as last time,” Vogel said.

Food vendors will be set up as well tents with air conditioning to protect visitors from Florida’s heat.

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