By Tracy Lee
Have you ever witnessed something so shameful that the moment you became aware of it, you were instantly ill? So unbelievable that the shock wave of awareness incapacitated your ability to function, and for a moment, you stood frozen, as you were, in time? So startling that your brain had to struggle through a fog of confusion and disbelief to regain comprehension and use of your vocabulary? I have had this experience. I experienced it June 5, 2017, at 10:12 a.m.
My husband is a Retired United States Navy Veteran. He served his country with honor for twenty years. My children and I are very proud of his service, of his honor, of his loyalty. His medals, ribbons, and special letters of commendation are proudly displayed on the walls in our home.
As a United States Veteran, funeral home owners, and a funeral director, my husband and I are always very honored when we have the privilege of burying one of our nation’s veterans. We extend special care to these dependent families as we understand, appreciate, and relate to the sacrifices they have endured throughout their service member’s careers. We, too, have endured the extended separations, poverty, displacements, discriminations, stresses, wars, illnesses, etc. that service members and dependents suffer throughout their tours of duty, and we have always been honored to bear them proudly.
Recently, I became aware of a shameful act perpetrated against certain veterans that is so disconcerting that it has caused me great distress. I immediately notified the VA in Washington, D.C., and together, we began working to reverse this dishonor. Both the VA and I thought that this issue was an isolated event, however, this past weekend has proven that this is not so. At this time, I do not know how far reaching this shameful issue impacts our nation. I do know, however, that something must be done to rectify it, something must be done to discover how far reaching it is, and something must be done to stop it ever happening again.
A few months ago, I buried a brother and sister who had died within a few days of each other. Their family wanted to bury them side by side in a municipal cemetery. The brother was buried first, and upon probing to bury the sister next to him, we found that the neighboring grave was occupied. We buried his sister one grave over, and upon investigation discovered the grave between them was their uncle, a World War II Veteran, who had been buried seventeen years earlier. Surprisingly, their uncle’s grave was unmarked and until that moment, lost.
The family was concerned and wondered why their uncle’s grave was unmarked. “Where could his government issued monument be?” they asked me. I advised them to seek out the original funeral home of service in finding the answers to their questions. They did, and to everyone’s surprise, and horror, the missing veteran monument was found.
The niece acting on behalf of this family is a retired US Navy Sr. Chief. When she called and notified me that the veteran marker had been located, I was unable to speak. The original funeral home owner had thrown the monument behind his funeral home, into a pile of ten discarded veteran monuments. As a funeral director and dependent wife of a retired service member, my thoughts raced to the other families whose veteran’s monuments lay shamefully discarded and dishonored behind this man’s funeral home. I thought of the pain I would feel if my husband lay in an unmarked grave for seventeen years while his marker was uncaringly discarded in a pile with nine others. I thought of the anguish my children would suffer if their father were to suffer such disregard for the honorable, heart wrenching and often terrifying sacrifices he, and they, had endured during his career and service to our great and mighty nation.
I felt as though my breath had been snatch from my chest. I could neither see nor hear anything around me. I suddenly realized I needed to draw a breath and sit down before I fell down. My knees trembled as I nearly dropped the phone from my weakening grasp. I heard my client on the other end of the phone line asking if I were still there, and I barely choked out a reply as I struggled to control a swell of emotional tears spilling down my cheeks.
It is important to note that the funeral home owner has not broken any laws regarding placement of these monuments. The VA issues veteran’s monuments when a qualified veteran dies. Monuments are shipped via common carrier. Common carriers will only deliver to bonafide businesses. The funeral home received the monuments on behalf of the service member’s family; however, it is not his responsibility to set the monument. That responsibility falls upon the service member’s family. My client’s family was unaware for seventeen years that their deceased veteran was in an unmarked grave. The next of kin who would have noticed such an obvious oversight lives in a nursing home three hours away from her husband’s grave. I doubt very seriously that a phone message from a funeral director three hours from her, about a headstone being delivered to his funeral home, was ever delivered to her as she lay in her hospital bed seventeen years ago. Even if it were, who can say that it made any sense at all to her, or that she would have had the means to do anything about it?
Unfortunately, this weekend widened the wound. The VA was in need of photographs of the discarded veteran monuments for proper analysis, so I asked a local veteran to go over and snap the requested photos. While he was getting the shots, the funeral home owner mentioned that he knew of a funeral home “just up the road” that had a cache of veteran monuments behind his business as well. As my workday ended, my husband and I drove our vehicle “just up the road” (and across the state line) to confirm the claims of additional discarded veteran monuments. As we approached the second funeral home, my heart sank. From a block away, I recognized the majestic white marble monuments leaning against the walls of the building and laying on the ground. To our dismay, twenty-one additional veteran monuments were haphazardly strewn around the second funeral home’s property in blatant disrespect to our nation’s veterans, bringing the total to thirty-one monuments between the two funeral homes, with in close proximity to each other.
The VA has worked diligently to rectify this travesty. We do not know, however, how many honorable veterans lay underground in unmarked American soil. We do not know how many graves have been lost due to the shameful disregard of funeral directors who do not respect the sacrifices of our brave and fearless American veterans.
The question is, will we allow this to continue? Will we allow honorable American veteran’s graves to be lost because their family members were either not notified or informed that their stones needed to be set, or that they were too old or too ill to accomplish the setting, or that on a veteran’s retirement income fall far short of accomplishing the expense of this final act of respect? Will we allow honorable veteran’s graves to remain unmarked and lost forever on American soil?
I’ve been told the VA has never encountered this problem before. There are no VA funds available for the setting of veteran’s monuments. This responsibility falls squarely upon the shoulders of the veteran’s family. Should the setting of a veteran’s monument be established through the VA when the memorial stone is issued? I believe it should. I believe that the willingness of a veteran to die on behalf of the American people earns him or her the right to have a monument set upon his or her grave at passing. I believe that is a small recognition for the sacrifices and sufferings they willingly endured on behalf of each and every American citizen. I believe they deserve that, and I believe their families deserve that. There is a funeral honors detail provided for every veteran’s funeral, they present the flag, why can’t they set the stone? If that is not possible, why can’t there be a voucher sent out with every stone that stone setters can send in for payment? If that’s a no go, what about small business government contractors?
America has a problem. Many of our veterans are homeless (how does that happen?) and have no one to set their stones. American veterans registered in VA care programs commit suicide at an astounding number daily. Adding veterans waiting for VA care, that number rises from 22 to 35 daily (http://www.whiteoutpress.com/articles/2015/q2/22-veteran-suicides-day-actually-35-day/). America’s problem is that we do not take care of our veterans. We do not even place their monuments upon their graves on our own soil when they die. This shame can remain hidden no longer. Join me, a retired United States Veteran’s proud dependent wife, and help me stop this hidden shame.
The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect those of the Sun.
Tracy Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org