Foon Rhee: Forgotten veterans finally find their rest

05/26/2013 12:00 AM

10/02/2014 10:34 AM

Three volleys of gunfire echoed. A lone bugler played taps. An expertly folded flag was presented on behalf of a grateful nation.

It looked like the military funerals I've seen on TV or in the movies. But in important ways, this one was very different – and for me that made it all the more heartfelt.

Thirty-five veterans from Sonoma County who were laid to rest had been waiting, some for a very long time. One who died in 1962 was among eight who served during World War I, nearly a century ago. After their deaths, their bodies were never claimed. Their cremated remains were put in storage. They, and their service to our country, were long forgotten.

Last week's service at Sacramento Valley National Cemetery in Dixon was California's largest so far for these unclaimed veterans. On this Memorial Day, I'll be thinking of them – Navy Seaman Clio C. Weaver, Army Pvt. Fred Cartmell and all the others.

That they finally received the dignity and honor due them was through the dogged work of some good people in Sonoma County. Sonoma is ahead of the rest of the state largely because of one volunteer who is not a veteran himself.

Ron Collier, 66, the retired fire chief of Windsor, is the son of a World War II vet. He joined the Sons of The American Legion and started escorting the bodies of local soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, helping lead processions from airports to their hometowns, then to cemeteries. His commitment deepened when it turned out that he knew the fathers of two fallen soldiers from Mendocino County. He also started paying more attention to veterans.

Then in early 2011, Collier saw a presentation by the executive director of a national group called the Missing in America Project (www.miap.us), whose mission is to find, identify and give proper burials to unclaimed veterans. Since 2006, nearly 2,800 funeral homes have been searched and more than 2,000 veterans found.

In January 2012, Collier was appointed by Sonoma County supervisors as the county's veterans remains officer, to take the lead on a 2010 state law that lets veterans groups search mortuaries. A law passed last year requires counties to make every reasonable effort to determine if unclaimed remains are veterans.

Collier says he decided to take on this task to honor his dad and also to make sure forgotten veterans receive recognition similar to the fallen soldiers he escorts.

"Somebody has to do this," he told me. "You cannot leave these folks out there. It's the right thing to do."

Collier started with current cases in which veterans die and, for whatever reason, no family member comes forward to handle the arrangements. He then moved to older cases, focusing on 338 sets of unclaimed remains of Sonoma residents at Santa Rosa Memorial Park, which handles indigent cases for the county. He filled out the paperwork to get official death certificates, and then sent inquiries to the national military archives in St. Louis to verify whether they were veterans.

Thus far, Collier has received word on 150 sets of remains, confirming the veterans interred last week. He accompanied them from Santa Rosa, a "Veterans Remembered" flag flying proudly from the back of his three-wheeled Spyder motorcycle.

Counting escorts for those killed since 9/11 and burials for unclaimed veterans, Collier figures he has attended 70 to 80 military funerals over the past six years.

"They are never routine," he says. "If they play 'Amazing Grace,' I cry like a little baby."

During Monday's ceremony, Collier stayed in the background, but folks in Sonoma County know he did the groundwork.

Collier "took the bull by the horns," says Chris Bingham, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who is the county's veterans service officer. "Without Ron, we would be like other counties struggling to do this."

It was Bingham who had the honor of receiving a flag on behalf of the relatives who weren't there. As he clutched it to his chest, it was obvious how moved he was. "It's hard to put words to it," said Bingham, who got emotional again passing on the flag the next morning to the county Board of Supervisors.

More than 200 veterans and supporters stood in for missing family members at the service. About 120 rode their motorcycles to escort the remains on the 75-mile trip from Santa Rosa to the cemetery. There, some solemnly carried the small boxes containing each veteran's remains from the single silver hearse to the table where they were arranged for the ceremony. In the 90-degree heat, others saluted as the pallbearers strode past. Still others held flags that flapped in the stiff breeze, forming a semicircle around the service.

They kept their vow that the fallen are never left behind, never forsaken. That camaraderie brought pride to Wayne Holland, 62, a Navy veteran and commander of American Legion Post 208 in Dixon.

"That's the best thing," he told me. "It's like all hands on deck. You don't have to ask twice."

After the ceremony, pallbearers carried the remains to the cemetery office. Terri Gomke, 53, of Penngrove, a friend of veterans who is in the Patriot Guard Riders, didn't look to see the name of the veteran she was carrying. It was enough to know she was doing her part.

"I was honored and blessed to help take care of someone who should have been taken care of a long time ago," she said, holding the miniature U.S. flag that had covered the box.

After almost everyone had left, cemetery staff placed 10 veterans in adjoining niches in the columbarium. The rest were interred in the following days, some buried side by side amid the rows upon rows of white gravestones. Finally, the forgotten veterans found their eternal rest, in the embrace of 16,000 comrades.

Follow Foon Rhee on Twitter @foonrhee.

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