Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Never Alone MEMORIAL DAY

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Never Alone MEMORIAL DAY

Article excerpt

Volunteers honor lives of veterans who dies in the shadows

The bodies of the indigent veterans arrive at the cemetery in plain plywood boxes, some with rope where the steel handles should be.

All anyone knows of them are their names, lifespan and the military branch in which they served. They have no family to mourn them, nor the resources for a more elaborate burial.

To the casual observer, the services at Sarasota National Cemetery may seem a bit impersonal. They usually last 20 minutes and the man with the bugle is not really playing "Taps"; there is a recording device hidden inside his instrument.

But they are conducted with honor, respect and pride, with dedicated groups of local veterans there to embrace the forgotten as extended family members.

Eugene "Top" Harrison of the Marine Corps, who served three tours in Vietnam, usually attends the indigent services. Several times he has accepted the burial flag on behalf of the fallen, even though he knows nothing about them.

"People look at me and they know they are going to see tears coming down my face," Harrison said. "It's that important to me. I get that emotional and I take it very seriously.

"That poor guy or girl or whoever they may be, for me to accept the flag for that family is a pretty awesome thing. Everyone should try it at least once to see what it feels like."

'Who is this PFC?'

In 2010, Congressman Vern Buchanan asked the Sarasota Veterans Commission to devise a protocol that would honor indigent veterans and have someone accept the burial flag on their behalf.

Several local patriotic groups such as the American Legion, Veteran of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans and the Alpha Company of Vietnam Brotherhood answered the call.

So did Our Lady of Charity Assembly 3089 of the Knights of Columbus, which won an international award for its participation.

Since May 2010, 37 Knights have taken part in 86 internments, including 17 this year.

A Knight always accepts a burial flag wearing a tuxedo with a social baldric, and is flanked by two Knights of Columbus Guards in full regalia.

"Some people may consider this hokey," Knights member Eugene Dolecki said. "Well, we don't."

When Buchanan's office is notified an indigent veteran has died, it will assign flag-receiving honors to a specific patriotic group. Usually, that is with only a day or two notice.

The deceased arrives at Sarasota National Cemetery in a van. The simple coffins have a tag attached to the side with basic information such as name, weight and military service.

"I have been to most of them for two years and you wonder," said Robert Marrah, a Marine Corps veteran and Knights member. "You look at your own life, where a family has helped, and you wonder, 'What happened here?'

"Did their family reject them? Did they reject their family? There was some cause for them to be separated."

Harrison, who is a member of the Alpha Company of Vietnam Brotherhood, often wonders the same thing. …

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