Honoring dead veterans is long overdue, said John Morrill, retired Navy master chief and a Pearl Harbor survivor, but he doesn't worry about being forgotten as an individual. Echoing other veterans, Morrill, 82, of Spring Valley, said it's more important to remember the lessons of history. "I'm more concerned that we won't be prepared for the next conflict that occurs," he said. "With the federal government cutting back our military budget, we could be back on our haunches. We could have another Pearl Harbor."
Like many mourners, the chaplain who leads the prayers, burial rites, and memorial rituals each month in Balboa Park regards World War II veterans as heroes. "We owe this particular generation a great deal," said retired Navy commander Ron Ritter, 62, of Fallbrook. "Anyone who knows anything about history at all knows, if it weren't for our World War II veterans, we would be speaking Japanese or German."
Retired Navy commander Al Pavich, president of Vietnam Veterans of San Diego, feels the same. On attending a recent tribute to San Diego-area residents who invaded Normandy on D-Day, Pavich personally greeted each veteran. "I shook their hand and said, 'Thank you for my freedom.' We don't get to do what we do every day without them. In World War II, everything we believe in was on the line."
Ironically, appreciation of veterans is low in San Diego, Pavich said, despite the city's high presence of military. "You don't get a lot of people conversant and aware of sacrifices made by the military. There are always plenty of advertisements everywhere about Memorial Day sales but, until this past year, not much coverage on Memorial Day services," Pavich observed. "I have no problem with families enjoying their day, going to the park, going to the beach on Memorial Day and Fourth of July. But it doesn't hurt to take ten minutes out to teach your children about remembering the people in our past who fought for us to have that freedom."
Pavich, 51, of Poway, is gratified to see more civilians attending the monthly ceremony. The deceased veterans whose names are called presumably have had individual services, but the indigent veterans have not, Pavich said. Sometimes a few families appear at the group remembrance, having learned of the event by word of mouth. In June, there were about a dozen civilians in the crowd of 75 mourners. "If there is no family, we are the family," declared retired Army sergeant first class Lalo Rodriguez, 67, of San Diego. He leads the 82nd Airborne's honor guard, which also provides rifle salutes at five to six individual funerals a week in San Diego County.
More than 2000 homeless veterans of all ages wander the streets of San Diego, Pavich estimated, noting that poverty, substance abuse, despair, and post-traumatic stress syndrome aren't exclusive to Vietnam-era veterans. Besides the rising mortality rate of World War II veterans, "one of the most alarming new trends I've noticed," Pavich said, "is the number of veterans, 65 and older, becoming homeless for the first time."
In April, Service Corp. International, also known as Dignity Memorial, began giving free burials for San Diego's poor and homeless veterans. The Houston-based company, which is the nation's largest chain of funeral homes and cemeteries, launched its "homeless veterans burial program" last year in several other cities. Devised by company executives who are themselves veterans, the program relies on government agencies and local veterans' groups to determine the deceased's military, financial, and family status.
"We don't get involved in any of the decision-making. Once we get the veteran's name, we just provide the service," said Daniel Galligan, general manager of Glen Abbey, a Service Corporation International funeral home in Bonita. The cost, including transportation, casket, paperwork, staff time, and clothing, if necessary, is about $2200 per veteran, Galligan estimated. "These are people who are falling through the cracks. These are veterans who have no voice or advocacy," he said. "The need in this community is incredible."
The five flag-draped coffins at the June ceremony in Balboa Park, Galligan noted, about equal the number of burials his company expects to donate annually in each of the other cities where it offers the new program: Houston, Texas; Kansas City and St. Louis, Missouri; and Louisville, Kentucky. Before the service became available here, the corpses of indigent veterans were usually cremated by the San Diego County Public Administrator and the ashes mailed to Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. Because that graveyard has no burial space left for caskets, Service Corp. International must deliver the coffins containing indigent veterans to Riverside National Cemetery, about 100 miles north.
The June burial rites for Ford, Larson, Whalen, Strong, and Mitchell required five silver hearses and 30 pallbearers wearing white gloves. After firing three volleys from their rifles, 82nd Airborne members carefully folded the flags atop the five coffins. Because there were no relatives, Rodriguez handed the flags to representatives from each veteran's military branch. To prevent himself from breaking down emotionally, Rodriguez avoids looking into the recipients' eyes. "When I present the flag, I aim right here," Rodriguez said, tapping the top of his forehead. "I have to be careful not to cry. I never get used to it." n
The next memorial service is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Saturday, August 25. Information about the monthly ceremony is available by calling Veterans Journal at 619-233-8978. Vietnam Veterans of San Diego answers inquiries about burial for indigent veterans at 619-497-0142. The 82nd Airborne Division Association's San Diego All Airborne Chapter, which accepts donations for providing honor guards at veterans' individual funerals, can be reached at 619-697-6005.