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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Transition Help Without The DoD PowerPoint Slides

Soldiers line up to check in for the CivilianJobs.com job fair sponsored by the Fort Campbell, Ky., Army Career and Alumni Program office. Hundreds of transitioning service members, veterans, and their family members took part in the event.

My thanks to Barrett Bogue, Student Veterans of America vice president of Public Relations and Digital Engagement, for passing along a new website focused on transitioning service members.

While the issues covered in Rebootcamp may sound similar to the TAP classes you sat through, don’t worry – there’s no “death by PowerPoint” here. The site includes edutainment videos, informative how-tos, custom tools, and inspirational stories about veterans.

Education, employment and entrepreneurship are the cornerstones of the new site, Rebootcamp, produced by the Military Times. The strength of the website; the many partners that contribute.

A huge chunk — maybe even a majority — of the information, advice and other content that you’ll see comes from more than a dozen partners, spanning veterans service organizations, government agencies and the private sector.

A few of the recommended articles:

Another resource to check out, Project Transition USA, a non-profit organization that shows service members how to use LinkedIn to help transitioning military find meaningful careers in the civilian world.

75 Employers At Military Spouses, Veterans Job Expo

PHOTO COURTESY: Visit Tampa Bay

In addition to the job opportunities – military spouses and veterans who register prior to the event will have a chance to win free tickets to the Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Ottawa Senators hockey game.

The Hiring Our Heroes Expo is scheduled Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. at Amalie Arena, 401 Channelside Dr, Tampa, FL.

However, doors open at 9 a.m. for those interested in the free, Career Connections employment workshop to help build your resume and translate military skills into civilian skills. There are additional resources for connecting with veteran-friendly employers, digital networking and job search techniques.

Expo sponsors, in addition to the Lightning, are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, Lockheed Martin and USAA. Employers range from large, national companies to smaller, regional businesses.

Since 2011, Hiring Our Heroes has helped hundreds of thousands of veterans and military spouses find meaningful employment through more than 1,100 job fairs in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and on military installations overseas.

VA Faces Challenges Expanding Mental Health Care


Army veteran Phillip Faustman sifts through his belongings at a San Diego homeless shelter. Faustman says he attempted suicide three times in two and a half years.
Christopher Maue / KPBS

The following is a report from Steve Walsh, my colleague at the American Homefront Project, reporting on military life and veterans issues.

The Veterans Health Administration is planning to make mental health care more available to help reduce veteran suicide. But veterans advocates worry about the impact on the already strained VA health system.

A recent government study concluded that the majority of veterans who commit suicide are not enrolled in VA mental health care.

Phillip Faustman almost became a part of that statistic. Faustman, who is gay, joined the Army in 2012 after the end of the “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy, which barred gay and lesbian troops from serving openly in the military.

“I waited for the repeal, so I joined the Army to prove to myself that I could do it,” he said.

While in the military, he suffered sexual trauma that led to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Discouraged, he left the military in 2015, he said.

“When I first got out, I was alone, and no one was really helping me,” he said. “So I had my suicide attempt.”

Periodically homeless, Faustman did not turn to the VA, in part because he found the enrollment process daunting.

That’s a common problem among new veterans, only forty percent of whom receive VA mental health coverage. Many are discouraged from seeking care because of a complicated process to determine their eligibility. Veterans may have to prove, for instance, that their mental health need is connected to their service.

Without treatment, Faustman attempted suicide three times in less than three years. Continue reading

Inaugural Skyway 10K Run To Benefit Armed Forces Familes

Sunshine Skyway Bridge connects Manatee County, to the southeast, to Pinellas County, in the northwest, over the entrance to Tampa Bay. Photo courtesy of Florida Department of Transportation.

Florida terrain is flat – so much so – that the excitement among runners to take on the Skyway Bridge that soars 430 feet above Tampa Bay – generated a sellout of all 7,000 race spots for the Inaugural Skyway 10K.

For the first time ever, Florida’s iconic Sunshine Skyway Bridge (northbound lanes) will be shutdown, March 4, 2018, for the race that will benefit the Armed Forces Families Foundation.

The Skyway 10K starts Sunday at 6 a.m. The northbound span will be closed to vehicle traffic from 4-10 a.m.

Spectators will not be allowed on the bridge. However, there is a pre-race Expo, Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Tropicana Field, 1 Tropicana Drive
St. Petersburg, FL.

Registrants must pick up their race packets and bibs at the expo – the free event includes live music, vendors and a day of family fun.

Troop Appreciation Dinner: ‘A Chance To Be Normal’

Below is a guest column and photos from Althea Paul, Vistra Corporate Communications Manager. She coordinated news coverage of the Tampa Troop Appreciation Dinner for the sponsors, Freedom Alliance and Texas de Brazil.

 

Army 1st Lt. Victor Prato with his parents, Janet and Gregory.

It’s a Wednesday night, around dinnertime. U.S. Army 1st Lt. Victor Prato is enjoying a nice meal with his parents at Texas de Brazil in Tampa. It may sound typical for some, but this evening is so much more than dinner.

Prato is surrounded by other wounded service members, who like him, are being treated at James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital. In total, about 60 service members and their families are there.

The 25-year-old is recovering from soft tissue injuries that, for now, have left him in a wheelchair. In November 2017, Prato was wounded while on patrol in Afghanistan after a suicide bomber drove into the vehicle carrying him and several others.  Prato is not sure if he will ever walk again.

“It’s always nice to be out of the hospital room,” said Prato. “It’s hard to lose your privacy, independence and ability to walk – all at the same time.” Continue reading

Researchers Test Resilience – War Zones To Refugee Camps

syrian refugees united nations photo

Thousands of desperate residents flood a destroyed main street January 2014 in Damascus, Syria, to meet aid workers from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The UNRWA was able to complete its first humanitarian food distribution in Yarmouk Camp there after almost six months of siege. (Photo courtesy of UNRWA)

The goal: find the best ways to teach psychological resilience to children, teens and adults living with stress and danger – like a Syrian refugee camp. But resiliency is equally helpful on the home front – in schools and concert halls.

I’m proud to share an article on resiliency research from another Carter Fellow, Emily Underwood, published in Science magazine.

In 2015, in the name of science, more than 800 teenage boys and girls in northern Jordan each allowed 100 strands of hair to be snipped from the crowns of their heads. Roughly half the teens were Syrian refugees, the other half Jordanians living in the area. The hair, molecular biologist Rana Dajani explained to the youngsters, would act as a biological diary. Chemicals embedded inside would document the teens’ stress levels before and after a program designed to increase psychological resilience.

It was a unique experiment. And it was one that suited Dajani, who’s based at The Hashemite University in Az-Zarqa, Jordan. Dajani looks askance at many humanitarian interventions imported from elsewhere. “I’m always skeptical of any program coming in from the outside, which says they can heal or help,” she says. Half-Syrian herself—Dajani’s mother is from Aleppo, her father from Palestine—she was also eager to study the physiological effects of conflict. So when medical anthropologist Catherine Panter-Brick, whom Dajani had met at Yale University in 2012, approached her about putting the resilience-boosting program to the test, she seized the opportunity.

The full article is available here. It shows, despite the continued bombing and chemical warfare in Syria, there are people from scientists to journalists trying to help.

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