In a moving ceremony Saturday morning at Calverton National Cemetery, 20 veterans – most homeless when they died and all unclaimed by family or loved ones – were laid to rest with full military honors.
The bodies of each were carried in separate hearses that had assembled at 8:30 a.m. in Fresh Meadow, Queens, to begin a procession to Calverton. On the last leg of the journey – Rte. 25 – they passed beneath a series of arches flying American flags, formed by bucket trucks from area fire departments, from the William Floyd Parkway to the entrance to the cemetery.
Once at Calverton, each casket was removed from a hearse one at a time by a Marine honor guard and carried into a tent that had been erected for the occasion. The 20 were from Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens, their bodies stored in morgues, some from as far back as 2006, unclaimed and alone.
“We’re here for one overriding reason, and that is the belief that no veteran should pass abandoned and alone,” said John Caldarelli of the Missing in America Project, who served as master of ceremonies.
“Today, in a brief moment of time, we will be their family, we will be their loved ones,” he said.
“We don’t know a great deal about the twenty who lie before us,” said another speaker, U.S. Rep. Tim Bishop, D-Southampton. “We don’t know why they died alone. We don’t know what happened in their lives that brought them to this point.
“But we do know,” he said, “that at a point in their lives, they stepped forward to answer their nation’s call, and for that they have earned our undying gratitude, praise and support.”
Bishop described the twenty as “heroes, true citizens, people who loved their country and were willing to serve it and to do so in many cases under great peril.”
Rep. Steve Israel, D–Huntington, spoke of the enormous stain on America by having so many veterans that are homeless.
“Some were willing to fight for our nation in jungles, in deserts, in cities and on the high seas,” Israel said, “and they came home and slept of the nation’s sidewalks because they didn’t have a place to live.
“Today,” he said, we lay these 20 veterans to rest, but we cannot rest until there is not a single American veteran who doesn’t have a home.”
To address the problem, Israel said he had recently introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would allow every American to check off on their income tax return an allocation of $3 to go to ending homelessness among veterans.
He noted there was opposition to his bill, with some saying it’s too complicated for the Internal Revenue Service to manage, with others saying there are many other worthy causes to support.
“You know what I say to them?” Israel said. “I tell them that if we if we can allow the American people to check off three dollars for a presidential political campaign, we can allow them to check off three dollars to make sure that no veteran is homeless in America.
“Someone once said,” Israel said, “that dying for freedom isn’t the worst thing in the world. But being forgotten for dying for freedom is the worst thing in the world.”
The ceremony was arranged in part by Dignity Memorial, a network of funeral homes and cemeteries in 32 cities that provide military funerals for qualified veterans through its homeless veterans burial program.
Speaking today, Chris Marsh, the organization’s executive director, said that, according to the latest statistics from the Veterans Administration, approximately 107,000 veterans are homeless on any given night.
He also said that while only 8 percent of the population can claim veteran status, nearly 20 percent of the homeless population is made up veterans, a situation he called “unacceptible.”
“Veterans are twice as likely to become homeless as non-veterans,” Marsh said. “Ninety percent are not homeless by choice. Many are battle-scared and unable to cope in today’s society. And this is expected to increase as our soldiers return from fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Calverton National Cemetery is the nation’s largest military cemetery, with 220,000 bodies interred. Following is a listing of the 20 veterans that joined their ranks today, as provided by Dignity Memorial.
Anderson Alston – U.S. Army Master Sergeant Anderson Alston was a combat veteran in WWII. He joined the US Army in August 1943 and was honorably discharged on March 1946.
Rafael Arroya – Private First Class Rafael Arroya joined the US Army in August 1959 and was honorably discharged in July 1971.
Barry Carl Brooks – Veteran Barry Carl Brooks joined the US Air Force in August 1957 and was honorably discharged in 1969. His rank is unknown.
John Cronin – Sr. Airman John Cronin joined the US Air Force in August 1955 and was honorably discharged in May 1958.
Donald Degault – Private Donald DeGault was a sharpshooter in the US Army. He joined the US Army in April 1963 and was honorably discharged in December 1965.
Nichols Ernest – Private Nichols Ernest joined the US Army in August 1953 and was honorably discharged in August 1956.
Clifford Henry – Petty Officer Second Class Clifford Henry was a Medical Field Service Technician in the US Navy, as well as a Small Arms Marksman.
Henry Hightower – Private Henry Hightower joined the US Army in March 1943 and was honorably discharged in September 1943.
Frederick Hunter – Private Frederick Hunter joined the US Army in January 1968 and was honorably discharged in January 1971.
Theodore Jackson – Private Theodore Jackson joined the US Army in March 1975 and was honorably discharged in October 1979.
Miguel Lugo – Private First Class Miguel Lugo joined the US Army in January 1954 and served with the Artillery. PFC Lugo was honorably discharged in January 1956.
Myron Sanford Mabry – Veteran Myron Sanford Madry joined the US Navy in May 1960 and was honorably discharged in July 1971. His rank is unknown.
Thomas Miller – Corporal Thomas Miller joined the US Army in May 1951 and was honorably discharged in May 1954.
Michael Nardi – Private Michael Nardi joined the US Marine Corps in September 1964 and was honorably discharged in October 1967.
Charles Nicholson – Private Charles Nicholson joined the US Marine Corps in December 1963 and was honorably discharged in July 1964.
John Palazzo – Seaman Apprentice John Palazzo joined the US Navy in January 1965 and was honorably discharged in January 1967.
Robert Prioleau – Spec. 4 Robert Prioleau joined the US Army in November 1958 and was honorably discharged in February 1962.
James Rose – Veteran James Rose served in the US Army and was honorably discharged. His rank is unknown.
Robert Thompson – Veteran Robert Thompson joined the US Air Force in January 1952 and was honorably discharged in January 1956. His rank is unknown.
Steven Wrighton – Private Steven Wrighton joined the US Army in June 1970 and was honorably discharged in October 1970.