GARDEN CITY, N.Y. (AP/CBSNewYork) — CALVERTON, N.Y. (AP) — They were once forgotten: 20 Americans who had served their country in uniform and died years later, their remains unclaimed — until now.
On Saturday, they were buried with full honors at Calverton National Cemetery on eastern Long Island, complete with flag-draped coffins, prayers by a military chaplain and a 21-gun salute.
“Go gently dear brothers, your wait is done,” said John Caldarelli, an American Legion member. “Taps has sounded and you are dismissed. … No longer forgotten or cast aside.”
WCBS 880’s Sophia Hall speaks with Michael Picerno of Calverton National Cemetery
Along with their names went life stories that placed the men in military service as far back as World War II.
In that conflict, Anderson Alston served as an Army master sergeant. Pvt. Frederick Hunter was a U.S. soldier from 1968 to 1971. And Myron Sanford Mabry was in the Navy from May 1960 to July 1971.
They were among the 20 who died in recent years in New York City, with no one to legally claim their remains.
Ordinarily, they would have been quietly buried in a potter’s field, their graves unmarked.
On Saturday morning, hearses bearing their remains pulled up to the cemetery entrance to the sound of bagpipes, with color guards representing various branches of the military. In tribute, local fire department trucks — two at a time — hoisted their ladders to form arches from which American flags were suspended.
Later, a folded flag from each coffin — usually presented to the next of kin — was handed to mourners standing in for absent relatives. They included members of Gold Star Mothers, a group of parents who lost their children in the military.
“It was bittersweet,” Michele McNaughton said later of the moment she received the flag from the coffin of John Palazzo, a U.S. Navy seaman who served from 1965 to 1967 and died in 2006.
Calverton, McNaughton said, “is the same place where my son is buried.”
James McNaughton died in 2005 when he was a 27-year-old U.S. Army staff sergeant, killed by a sniper in Baghdad.
A white rose was placed on each coffin after it was undraped.
The somber service was part of a national effort by the Department of Veterans Affairs and private groups to clear a backlog of unburied or unclaimed veterans’ remains. Speakers included two Long Island congressmen, — U.S. Rep. Timothy Bishop, D-N.Y., and Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y.
“Today, we laid to rest 20 veterans, but tonight, 134,000 veterans will go to sleep on American sidewalks,” Israel said. “One out of every four homeless people in America wore the uniform of the United States military, and tonight they’ll keep themselves warm with tattered blankets.”
Israel said “the most fitting way” to honor those buried Saturday would be to end homelessness among America’s veterans. On Wednesday, the first session of the new Congress, he introduced a bill that would allow taxpayers to check off a contribution for homeless veterans.
The ceremony was the result of efforts by the Missing in America Project, which strives to provide a respectful funeral for any veteran with an honorable discharge.
Since 2006, the organization’s hundreds of volunteers have contacted funeral homes and morgues across the country, seeking unclaimed remains. The project is sanctioned by the Department of Veterans Affairs, which contacted the group about assisting with the New York City cases.
The New York veterans had identification documents when they died and the group worked with the VA and other agencies to confirm their military service. Some of the men may have been homeless or poor, but others may have simply led lonely lives and had little contact with their families.
The bill for expenses associated with the burials was covered by the Dignity Memorial Homeless Veterans Burial Program, a national network of funeral, cremation and cemetery service providers.
Lisa Marshall, a Dignity Memorial spokeswoman, said the organization is planning similar services in 32 other states. Saturday’s burial in New York was the first, she said.
“We don’t know what happened in their lives that left them in a position where they died alone, but for a part of their life they gave themselves completely to their country,” said Bishop, the congressman. “That is something we cannot forget.”
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