Every December, when the ‘Wreaths Across America' program is presented at the Alabama National Cemetery, Col. Bob Barefield reminds us that beneath each marble marker is not just a faceless VETERAN, but a son or daughter, a brother or sister, a mother or father, or a friend. He challenges us to write down the name from the stone where we place our wreath, and when we get home, research that veteran. Find out who he really was.
I received an email that had dozens of recipients listed, requesting that if I am able and available, I attend an interment service at the Alabama National Cemetery for a “homeless veteran, who has been in the morgue since last October”. Apparently this Navy veteran was estranged from his family, and had no friends either. It would be up to his fellow veterans to pray for him, bid him Rest In Peace, and to thank him for standing his watch, assuring him that he can now “Stand down. We have the watch now.”
The Patriot Guard Riders (PGR), as always, unhesitatingly answered the call. Besides providing a motorcycle honor guard for the final leg of the journey, they also stood an unwavering flag line for this veteran that none of them knew personally. Six of them solemnly carried the coffin to the committal shelter, and one of them accepted the triangular folded flag. At their own expense, the PGR stood in for family and friends. Not only patriotism, but camaraderie at its very best.
The two sailors who folded the flag were uniformed in immaculate, crisp white uniforms, and performed that honored duty with precision.
The bugler played TAPS.
As I witnessed this solemn final goodbye, I wondered why. This sailor was a Vietnam veteran, so he was somewhere around my age. Why was he “estranged” from his family? Who had his family been?
Did he have a wife that he had wronged in some way? Children? Brothers or sisters? What in the world could he have done that nobody will even come to his funeral? I have to think his parents are deceased, because I can’t imagine a mother not loving her son, no matter what he has done.
He was once a baby, whose parents and grandparents marveled at his first smile, his first word, his first step. He was taken to Olan Mills and photographed as the most beautiful baby ever born. They put his picture in a frame and proudly displayed it on the mantle.
Once he attended elementary school, cleaned blackboard erasers, played baseball, flirted with a little girl. He had friends on the playground. Once he attended high school, played football or basketball, or played in the marching band. Maybe he drove a beat-up old Ford Falcon with no hubcaps. He took a girl to a movie, bought her popcorn, and kissed her goodnight.
And once he visited a recruiter and took that oath... signed that line... that check, “made payable to the United States of America, for an amount up to and including his life”. He endured basic training, and served – HONORABLY -in Vietnam. He shared the “watch”. He had buddies. He laughed and he probably cried. Maybe he played penny ante poker or Bid Whiz with his shipmates. For sure he missed someone back home. And for sure we didn't say, "Welcome home, Sailor."
Then, sometime in the last 50 years he did something so horrendously terrible that he alienated everyone except God. Maybe he had PTSD. Many Vietnam veterans did, and were not given treatment. Maybe he was subjected to Agent Orange. Many Vietnam veterans were, and were not given treatment. Maybe he became addicted to drugs or alcohol. Many Vietnam veterans did, and were not given treatment.
After the ceremony, I asked 3 different people what the veteran’s name was. Nobody knew. So I went to the main office and asked there.
When I got home, I tried to research this faceless, forgotten, unloved, friendless, homeless veteran. Nothing. Except the PGR, who also took on the job of obituary. On their website is the announcement of the passing of PO3 George Schenck, US Navy, Vietnam..... but that's not all...
Following that announcement are dozens of condolence messages – all from Patriot Guard Riders, including this one:
I am forever grateful for your service to our country. Your service and sacrifices will not be forgotten. You are a TRUE AMERICAN HERO. May you Forever Rest in Peace. Stand Down. Your mission is complete. U.S. Army Retired,Airborne
The PGR once again serves the USA and this veteran who served her. His stand-in “friends”.