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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VA Acting Secretary Issues Message To Workforce

The following message comes directly from the Department of Veterans Affairs Acting Secretary Robert Wilkie:

Robert Wilkie, photo courtesy of the Department of Defense

I’m deeply grateful to President Trump for the opportunity to serve with you and for America’s Veterans.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the “War to end all Wars”.  One hundred years ago, my great grandfather left the comfort of teaching law at Ole Miss to join the 320th Field Artillery Regiment of the 82nd Infantry Division assembling at Camp Gordon, Georgia. Across the cantonment from his regiment was an infantry outfit whose muster roll included a reluctant scratch farmer from Pall Mall, Tennessee, by way of Buncombe County, North Carolina, by the name of Alvin York.

In another part of the country was my wife’s grandfather, who had probably never ventured beyond three or four counties in North and South Carolina, but by the time he was 18, he was marching up the Champs Elysees into the terrible battle of the Meuse Argonne.

Captain A.D. Somerville, Sergeant Alvin York and Private Onslow Bullard, ordinary Americans called upon to do extraordinary things. It is their descendants whom we are honored to serve—millions of ordinary Americans who have answered a special call for us and the world.

At my Pentagon swearing in, I was proud when the officiating officer noted that I had been born in khaki diapers. I have been privileged to see this military life from many angles—as a dependent, as the son of a gravely wounded combat soldier, as an officer in two services—the Navy and the Air Force– and as a senior leader in the Pentagon. Being with you today is the culmination of a lifetime of watching those who have borne the battle.

I do not know how long I will be privileged to serve as the acting secretary, but let me tell you about my philosophy.

Customer service is the key—but not necessarily in the way you might think. Customer service must start with each other—not talking at each other but with each other across all office barriers and across all compartments. If we don’t listen to each other we won’t be able to listen to our Veterans and their families.

We must have a bottom up organization. The energy must flow from you who are closest to those we are sworn to serve. It is from you that the ideas we carry to the Congress, the VSOs and to America’s Veterans will come.  Anyone who sits in this chair and tells you he has the answers is in the wrong business.

This is a noble calling. We have a solemn responsibility to Veterans—not just today, but in the months and years to come, to set the standard for the millions coming into our VA and for the millions who will join the ranks down the years.

That is our important and nonnegotiable mission. The president and Congress support us, and I’m honored to help lead this organization.  I look forward to meeting as many of you as possible. I value your thoughts and insights as we improve our cepartment (department) for the challenges in the years ahead.

Thank you and God bless.

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

18 Veterans Ready To Skate, Ski And Curl Their Way To Gold

USA Paralympian Jen Lee in goal. Photo courtesy: US Department of Veterans Affairs.

The 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics flame is extinguished – but that doesn’t end the quest of U.S. athletes for gold.

Opening Friday, March 9, at the same South Korean venue, Team USA will field 74 athletes to compete in the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games.

And one quarter, 18, of those athletes are veterans and active-duty military.

And, as a confessed hockey fan, I’m proud to say a third of veterans are playong on the USA sled hockey team:

Thanks to the work of Mike Molina, a VA public affairs specialist, and VAntage Point author Mei-Mei Chun-Moy, a VA intern, you can meet all 18 of the veterans on Team USA competing in the 2018 Winter Paralympics.

You can read their story in VAntage Point, the official blog of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

And you also can follow the 2018 Winter Paralympic Games here.

Looking To Help Veterans Exposed To Open Burn Pits

Photo: U.S. Department of Defense

Sharing an update for veterans exposed to the burn pits while serving in Iraq. The  story on proposed congressional action is by my fellow journalist Howard Altman, Tampa Bay Times.

For years, tens of thousands of veterans suffering from their exposure to the burning of toxins in military trash pits across Afghanistan and Iraq sought official acknowledgement of a connection between the smoke and their health issues.

Their long march for recognition is gaining some traction.

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, the Tarpon Springs Republican, is developing legislation requiring the Department of Veterans Affairs to assume that certain diseases arise from burn pit exposure when it makes decisions on compensating veterans. The legislation mirrors connections formally established to the defoliant Agent Orange used during the Vietnam War.

Read Altman’s full update here.

Add your name to the VA Burn Pit Registry.

Learn more about proposed legislation, H.R. 1279,  that would establish a VA center of excellence in the prevention, diagnosis, mitigation, treatment, and rehabilitation of health conditions relating to exposure to burn pits.

Evidence Of Housing Discrimination Against Veterans

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Quil Lawrence, NPR Veterans Correspondent. Photo by David Gilkey/NPR

The following audio is a report by Quil Lawrence from National Public Radio.

It had long been suspected.

There was even anecdotal evidence.

But it wasn’t until the Washington state attorney general set up a “sting” that officials had proof that landlords were discriminating against veterans using federal housing vouchers.

The HUD vouchers were part of the Department of Veterans Affairs effort to end homelessness among veterans.

But because of the high cost of housing and the unwillingness of landlords to accept vouchers, Lawrence reports that homelessness increased last year.

You can listen to his NPR report here.

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

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