Where have all the soldiers gone? Gone to graveyards every one. -- Pete Seeger, 1961
James Francis Walter Ford's death was certain, but his life remained a mystery. After he was accidentally struck and killed by a tow truck in San Diego May 21, authorities couldn't find his family or a permanent address. A Veterans Administration identification card led to military records showing Ford, 52, had served in the Navy during the Vietnam War. That was about the only work history available. The San Diego County Public Administrator's office concluded that Ford was a homeless veteran living on the street.
Retired Air Force captain Lucille Rosedale Tubbs of Rancho Peñasquitos -- herself a veteran of World War II -- wept to think that Ford spent his final days homeless, penniless, apparently without relatives, and possibly friendless. On June 23 Tubbs brought red carnations to Ford's burial rites, which were part of a service honoring not only all veterans who died in San Diego County the previous month but also those veterans whose cremated remains were mailed to Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery.
In that group of 273 deceased military men and women, there were 4 other indigent veterans besides Ford. Dale Larson, 79, who served in the Marines during World War II, died alone in an El Cajon nursing home. Chester Joseph Whalen, 58, who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, had been living in his van. Former Navy petty officer second class Ebb Strong, 43, lived on the brink of homelessness, sharing a downtown hotel room with two other men. Information was even more sketchy on former Marine James Lawrence Mitchell, 71.
"It's a chance for us to say good-bye to these people who don't have anyone," said Tubbs, who regularly attends the commemorations, held the fourth Saturday each month at the Veterans Memorial Building in Balboa Park. "It's an hour out of the month . . . to sit there and pray, to say good-bye, and say thank you for your service. This is what I want to do," she said, clutching her donations of flowers. "White is the color of death. I chose red. It looks good with the flag."
Tubbs is among dozens of volunteers from several organizations that participate. The Sea Cadets, teenagers learning about the military, provide the color guard -- marching with and displaying the United States flag. The 82nd Airborne Division Association's San Diego All Airborne Chapter, mostly former Army parachutists, form the honor guard, which fires a rifle salute to their fallen comrades. Full of solemnity and symbolism, the monthly memorial service developed from an idea.
Two years ago, Cynthia Nuñez, director of Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, proposed honoring the cremated remains that are mailed to her for burial in the ground or for inurnment in the columbarium. Each month as many as 50 packages containing ashes of veterans arrive from across the country and sometimes from overseas. With each parcel Nuñez wonders whether there has been a family service at the point of origin or whether the ashes were shipped by a funeral home heeding the written instructions of a veteran who died alone.
On hearing Nuñez's concerns that veterans deserved a tribute beyond her private prayers, David Brown, editor of Veterans Journal, organized a public ceremony in January 2000. He sought volunteers from the San Diego County United Veterans Council, an umbrella organization for many groups. To ensure greater involvement of the community, the ceremony is held at 11:30 a.m., after the council's monthly meeting and outside the Veterans Memorial Building, in Balboa Park, where the group gathers. Brown expanded the event to include all military personnel who have died the previous month in San Diego County.
"I thought that was a marvelous idea," recalls Brown, 65, a former warrant officer second class in the British Grenadier Guards. He also contributed his knowledge of pomp and circumstance. To memorialize the San Diego County veterans and the ashes mailed to Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, their names are read aloud. After every 25th name, a bell rings twice. "At the end of every battle, the British Royal Navy had roll call. If the name was called and there was no answer, the bell was rung to signify death," Brown explained. "The service evokes an emotion inside that's overpowering. I lost 18 friends during my service in the British Army."
Clayton Becker, a retired Navy petty officer first class, 62, said the roll call makes him nostalgic, too. "It even reminds me of people in my past who weren't in the service, old school chums, people I know." On playing taps to help conclude each monthly service, Becker thinks about how the tune dates back to the Civil War, yet it never sounds exactly the same; it varies with each bugler and each performance. "What separates us from other animals is human beings have a lengthier remorse, mourning, or memory," he said. "Remembrance is the mark of civilization."
More than 400 names of deceased San Diego County veterans have been read some months, said Cynthea Brown, who is Brown's wife and editor of Alert, a newsletter for Pearl Harbor survivors. She spends 15 to 20 hours a month compiling the list from the San Diego Union-Tribune's obituary notices. "Because I come from a military family, it's a labor of love," said Brown, the daughter, sister, and niece of Marines. "It's personally significant. I know a lot of those veterans on the list."
Nationwide, 1425 veterans die each day on average, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Of those, the majority -- 73 percent -- are World War II veterans, whose median age is 79. The death count is expected to rise through 2008 and then decline.
San Diego County is reputed to have one of the nation's largest populations of active and retired military -- a claim the Veterans Affairs Department cannot verify. With about 10 veterans dying a day in the county, the death toll is significant. "Since January we've lost 17 in our group alone," said Stuart Hedley, retired Navy chief electrician mate, 79, of Clairemont. Hedley was referring to the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association in San Diego, which has about 320 members. The survivors not only attend the individual funerals of their deceased members, but they also participate in the monthly memorial service. Identifiable by their aloha shirts and white slacks, they take turns reading the names of the dead. Fellow survivor retired Navy quarter master first class Paul La Chappell, 78, of El Cajon, rings the bell. Each month he recognizes names of acquaintances and friends.
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.