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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How to Honor Veterans and Observe Memorial Day

The Sarasota National Cemetery was opened in 2009. Photo courtesy of the American Legion Kirby Stewart Post 24 in Bradenton.

The Sarasota National Cemetery was opened in 2009. Photo courtesy of the American Legion Kirby Stewart Post 24 in Bradenton.

How to do you plan to observe Memorial Day – a day set aside to remember service members who have fallen in battle and others who are no longer living.

Kurt Rotar, director of the Florida National Cemetery at Bushnell and Bay Pines National Cemetery in St. Petersburg, suggested visiting your nearest national cemetery to pay tribute.

You can check a VA National Cemeteries Administration map for the cemetery closest to you.

Ceremonies are planned at several Florida national cemeteries which you can attend or you can just walk among the veterans buried there.

If you can’t make it to a national cemetery, there are other ways to recognize those who have worn the uniform.

  • Fly an American Flag at your home at half-staff before noon. Then, raise the flag to full staff at noon.
  • Put flowers or flags on veterans graves at private cemeteries
  • Take time as a family to say thank you to a veteran.
  • At 3 p.m. on Memorial Day pause for a moment of silence and reflect on the veterans’ sacrifice.
  • Secretly pick-up the meal tab for an active-duty military member you see dining.

Rotar said there are more than 133,000 buried at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell which is the second busiest national cemetery in the United States. Bushnell handles close to 7,000 burial services a year. The busiest national cemetery is in Riverside, California.

By the summer of 2015, Rotar said the VA National Cemetery Administration hopes to begin burials at two new national cemeteries one in Tallahassee and one in Scottsmore that will be known as the Cape Canaveral National Cemetery.

You can listen to Kurt Rotar’s interview on WUSF Public Radio or download the podcast.

Fewer Holiday Wreaths Donated for Veterans’ Graves

Wreaths Across America at the Jacksonville National Cemetery.

Wreaths Across America at the Jacksonville National Cemetery.

The tradition of placing Christmas wreaths on the graves of fallen soldiers and veterans started in 1992 at Arlington National Cemetery. Wreaths Across America has grown to include cemeteries in all 50 states and more than 20 cemeteries overseas.

But this year, the program is experiencing a dramatic drop in donations at Arlington and other veterans’ cemeteries.

Wreaths placed at Florida National Cemetery at Bushnell in December 2012.

Wreaths placed at Florida National Cemetery at Bushnell in December 2012.

At the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell, volunteers have gathered donations and sponsors for about 5,000 wreaths. Last year, they were able to lay 7,000 wreaths and had hoped to reach a goal of 10,000 wreaths for 2013.

“With the amount of people we had last year, we figured we could do 10,000,” said Randy Lewer, a veteran an one of three veterans who started the Bushnell wreaths program. “Unfortunately with the economy, it will fall quite short.”

Lewer and two other veterans, who loved to ride motorcycles together, started Wreaths Across America in 2006 at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell with only six wreaths.

“As long as you remember somebody up here, they’ll live forever,” veteran Jack Sellers said during an interview last year. “It’s when you forget them, or never come talk to them, never speak about them, is when they’re gone.”

Veterans Randy Lewer (R), Jack Sellers (C), and Steve Leinwand (L) took on the mission to provide wreaths for the veterans buried at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. November 2012.

Veterans Randy Lewer (R), Jack Sellers (C), and Steve Leinwand (L) took on the mission to provide wreaths for the veterans buried at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. November 2012.

Sellers died this year from tumors linked to Agent Orange. The third veteran Steve Leinwand also quit volunteering for health reasons.

So that left only Lewer to carry on. He’s arranged for several speakers including MacDill Air Force Base commander Col. Scott DeThomas. And several groups have volunteered to help lay the wreaths.

Volunteers will begin laying the wreaths at about 10:30 a.m. Dec. 14, 2013 at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. A ceremony will follow with speakers and the laying of a wreath in honor of POWs and MIAs.

Lewer credits community organizations, veterans groups and companies for helping sponsor the 5,000 wreaths. They’ve already placed the order, so additional contributions to the Bushnell wreaths program will go toward next year.

However, Lewer mentioned the Arlington National Cemetery is still accepting donations, $15 per wreath, until Dec. 11, 2013.

The Sarasota National Cemetery also is still accepting donations and is only 40 percent toward its goal.

The Bay Pines National Cemetery is only 1 percent toward its goal according to the Wreaths Across America website.

You can sponsor a wreath or checkout the cemeteries participating in the program at www.WreathsAcrossAmerica.org.

You can listen to Randy Lewer’s update on the Bushnell wreaths program on WUSF News.

Final Tribute Congressman Young Made Honorary Marine

US Marines carry the casket of Congressman Bill Young into his memorial service.

US Marines carry the casket of Congressman Bill Young into his memorial service.

He served more than half-century in public office including 43 years in Congress and chairmanship of the House Appropriations Committee. So, it’s difficult to measure the scope of Congressman Bill Young contributions to the Bay Area, Florida and the nation.

Young was laid to rest Thursday at Bay Pines National Cemetery – a place he visited often especially for the Veterans’ Day ceremony.

A salute as Congressman Young's casket passes.

A salute as Congressman Young’s casket passes.

On the stage at his funeral service at First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks, a smiling portrait of Bill Young looked out on the audience of more than 1,000 people. One could almost detect a twinkle in his eye as he was remembered for creating the national bone marrow registry and for his unwavering support for biomedical research.

Yet what was mentioned the most was his dedication and personal support of members of the military – especially the wounded and their families.

“It’s a strange thing to owe your life to somebody,” said Marine CPL Josh Callihan. Listed as a member of the Young family, Callihan credited the congressman and his wife Beverly for his recovery from a spinal injury.

Callihan was one of countless wounded troops visited by the Youngs at Walter Reed and other medical centers in the Tampa Bay region and around the world.

Pinellas County Sheriff's deputies salute the arrival of Congressman Young's casket.

Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputies salute the arrival of Congressman Young’s casket.

“I know that Bill would want me to say to the military that he loves so much, God Bless to all those who serve especially the wounded and their families and the fallen and all who stand the watch of the day,” said former Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England.

He then read from a condolence letter sent by former President George W. Bush to Young’s widow that noted the congressman’s devotion to veterans and the military.

One need look no further than MacDill Air Force Base and the joint commands, US Central Command and US Special Operations Command, to measure his influence said State Rep. Ed Hooper of Clearwater.

“Bill Young with what he has done with MacDill Air Force Base to keep that open, putting the world center of national defense. He is clearly that person that we owe that gratitude to,” Hooper said.

There are countless veterans who can personally thank Young and his congressional staff for helping with paperwork snafus at the VA. Vietnam veteran Randall McNabb, a local leader of the Patriot Guard Riders, said Young helped him back in 1977 with a GI Bill snafu.

Dozens of Patriot Guard Riders escorted Congressman Young from the church service to Bay Pines National Cemetery.

Dozens of Patriot Guard Riders escorted Congressman Young from the church service to Bay Pines National Cemetery.

McNabb worries that Young’s replacement will not have the same enthusiastic support for veterans.

“They don’t have the same knowledge,” McNabb said. “They don’t understand a lot of the issues especially of those who have been to war.”

Young served nine years in the Army National Guard and six more years in the Reserves. Yet at his funeral, members of the US Marine Corps are the ones who carried his casket and formed the honor guard.

And Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos made Young an honorary US Marine delivering the news to his widow, Beverly Young, an hour before the funeral service.

“While he was physically absent during my remarks with Beverly and their family he was most assuredly there in spirit,” Amos told the audience. “To the men and women who wear my cloth, this is the absolute very highest honor that we could have bestowed upon this valiant warrior. While his heart was always with his Marines, he is now officially one of us.”

Dozens of motorcycle deputies and Patriot Riders await Congressman Bill Young's escort to Bay Pines National Cemetery.

Dozens of motorcycle deputies and Patriot Riders await Congressman Bill Young’s escort to Bay Pines National Cemetery.

Memorial Day Events: Many Ways to Remember

flags-multiple-in-groundMemorial Day is an opportunity to remember all  those who died while serving the United States of America in all wars.

National Cemetery Ceremonies

An easy reference for all Memorial Day ceremonies at National Cemeteries throughout the United States is available HERE. This listing is in alphabetic order by state. Note that there is not a VA national cemetery in every state.

National Moment of Silence

On Memorial Day at 3 p.m., local time around the nation, Americans will pause for the annual Moment of Remembrance to reflect on the sacrifice of America’s fallen warriors and the freedoms that unite Americans. The Department of Veterans Affairs maintains approximately three million gravesites at its 131 national cemeteries in 39 states and Puerto Rico, as well as 33 soldier’s lots and monument sites.

On Memorial Day at 3 p.m., local time around the nation, Americans will pause for the annual Moment of Remembrance to reflect on the sacrifice of America’s fallen warriors and the freedoms that unite Americans.

The Department of Veterans Affairs maintains approximately three million gravesites at its 131 national cemeteries and has the potential to provide six million graves on more than 19,000 acres in 39 states and Puerto Rico, as well as 33 soldier’s lots and monument sites.

To learn more about the history of Memorial Day, visit VA’s Memorial Day page.

– See more at: http://www.va.gov/health/NewsFeatures/2013/May/Memorial-Day-When-America-Remembers.asp#sthash.tyM8C7bQ.dpuf

On Memorial Day at 3 p.m., local time around the nation, Americans will pause for the annual Moment of Remembrance to reflect on the sacrifice of America’s fallen warriors and the freedoms that unite Americans.

The Department of Veterans Affairs maintains approximately three million gravesites at its 131 national cemeteries and has the potential to provide six million graves on more than 19,000 acres in 39 states and Puerto Rico, as well as 33 soldier’s lots and monument sites.

To learn more about the history of Memorial Day, visit VA’s Memorial Day page.

– See more at: http://www.va.gov/health/NewsFeatures/2013/May/Memorial-Day-When-America-Remembers.asp#sthash.tyM8C7bQ.dpuf

An Online Memorial

If you do not have time this weekend to visit a national cemetery or personally thank a military veteran for his or her sacrifice after more than 10 years of war, take just a few minutes and look into their faces. The 100 faces in 100 hours is a project of CNN.com and features photos and bios of 100 Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines killed in Afghanistan and Iraq during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Washington D.C. Ceremonies

ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY – Monday, May 27  at 11 a.m. a Presidential Armed Forces Full Honor Wreath-Laying Ceremony is set at the Tomb of the Unknowns, to be followed by an observance program hosted by the Department of Defense in Arlington’s Memorial Amphitheater. A prelude by the U.S. Air Force Band will begin in the amphitheater at 10:30 a.m. Attendees are encouraged to be at the Tomb of the Unknowns or seated in the amphitheater by 9:30 a.m.

NATIONAL PARADE – Monday, May 27, beginning at 2 p.m.
The parade of Marching Bands and Veterans units from all 50 states steps off at the corner of Constitution Avenue and 7th Streets, NW and proceeds along Constitution Avenue, past the White House, ending at 17th Street. The National Memorial Day Parade is sponsored by the World War II Veterans Committee and includes patriotic floats and helium-filled balloons.

WOMEN IN SERVICE MEMORIAL – Monday, May 27, at 4 p.m. The Women In Military Service For America Memorial, located at the gateway to Arlington National Cemetery, will hold a ceremony that includes formal military honors, a keynote address, wreath-layings and the Memorial’s signature event, the scattering of rose petals in tribute to departed comrades. Members of the public are invited to join in the personal tribute segment of the program.

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Volunteers Wanted to Help Lay Wreaths on Vets’ Graves

Florida National Cemetery at Bushnell. Photo Credit: Bobbie O'Brien/WUSF

Florida National Cemetery at Bushnell. Photo Credit: Bobbie O’Brien/WUSF

You don’t have to have family or friends buried at the national cemeteries to help place wreaths on veterans’ graves. All you have to do is volunteer some of your time Saturday morning, Dec. 15, 2012.

The tradition of laying holiday wreaths on the graves of veterans started in Arlington National Cemetery and has grown to include all national cemeteries, including those in Florida.

Kurt Rotar, director of the Florida National Cemetery at Bushnell, said the hard work of raising money to pay for the wreaths is mostly done.

“Sgt. Major Dan Blackman with the Army National Guard is taking sponsorship of the St. Augustine,” Rotar said. “Jacksonville, South Florida, Sarasota all have sponsors that organize just like this group does.”

The group at Bushnell’s Florida National Cemetery will place 6,500 wreaths Dec. 15, starting at 9:45 with a ceremony at 11:00.

At Bay Pines National Cemetery, volunteers are asked to show up at 11:00 and wear gloves to protect their hands. That ceremony is at noon.

At the Sarasota National Cemetery, the wreath laying begins at 9:30 Saturday morning.

Two New National Cemeteries for Florida Veterans

The Sarasota National Cemetery was opened in 2009. Photo courtesy of the American Legion Kirby Stewart Post 24 in Bradenton.

Florida veterans will soon have two more options for burial at VA National Cemeteries in the state. Currently, there are seven national cemeteries, but large populations of veterans in north and east central Florida are still not served.

So, the Department of Veterans Affairs purchased land for two new cemeteries to accommodate about 247,000 veterans living more than 75 miles from any of the current cemeteries.

For veterans in the Daytona and Melbourne region, the VA purchased 318-acres, known as Acosta Groves, on US. Route 1 in northern Brevard County. Veterans living in the Tallahassee region will have a new cemetery on 250 acres along Apalachee Parkway.

Veterans in the Tampa Bay area have to drive an hour north to Bushnell’s Florida National Cemetery for burials because Bay Pines National Cemetery in Pinellas County only has room left for cremated remains.

: St. Augustine National Cemetery. Dade monuments.

: St. Augustine National Cemetery. Dade monuments. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some 1.6 million veterans live in Florida. A VA survey showed that many are not using their burial benefits because the national cemeteries were too far away according to Michael Nacincik of the VA National Cemetery Administration.

Nacincik said 80 percent of burials are from within a 75 mile radius of a national cemetery.

“So, the VA uses that as a benchmark when we’re looking at veterans populations to place that cemetery that captures that 75 mile circle,” Nacincik said.

It will take about 18 months to construct and open the cemeteries in Tallahassee and near Daytona.  In the past five years, the VA has opened new cemeteries in Jacksonville, South Florida in Lake Worth and Sarasota. The St. Augustine National Cemetery has been closed to new burials since 1997.

Nacincik said that the NCA is also expanding national cemeteries to under-served veterans in western New York, southern Colorado and Omaha.

The VA National Cemeteries Administration offers an online map of 131 national cemeteries it oversees in 39 states and Puerto Rico. Nearly 4 million Americans including veterans from every war are buried in the cemeteries and 33 soldier lots and monument sites.

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