Standing in the shade of a tent on the grounds of the State Veterans Cemetery, state Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Thomas J. Saadi on Friday spoke of those who die two deaths.
The first death is when the last breath leaves their lungs and their hearts cease beating, he said. The second is when their name and their memory are forgotten.
Behind him, a massive flag hung from a ladder truck and 24 members of the Patriot Guard arrayed themselves in a line with their own stars and stripes. On a table at his side were eight urns holding the unclaimed remains of veterans from World War I through the Vietnam War.
“These departed brothers are forgotten no longer,” Saadi said.
The military funeral for veterans whose remains were never claimed by family or friends is the seventh held since the Department of Veterans Affairs partnered with the Connecticut Funeral Directors Association in 2009.
The remains were transported in four hearses from the Department of Veterans Affairs in Rocky Hill to the cemetery, where they were removed by service members from their respective branches to be placed on a table under the tent. The Army was represented by the Connecticut Army National Guard, the Navy by sailors from the Naval Submarine Base in Groton and the US Marine Corps by the Marine Corps League.
Roughly 200 veterans and active duty servicemembers filled the lawn, joined by police officers, firefighters, and funeral home directors.
“Today’s ceremony and your presence here, which is really overwhelming, is a testament that we follow the warrior ethos — whether we are military, veteran or civilian — that we will never leave a comrade behind,” Saadi said.
The remains of Stephen Yoder Forrester, a U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam War, had been sitting unclaimed in a funeral home since he died in Branford in 1972. The most recent remains were stored in 2018, when U.S. Marines Corp and Korean War veteran Victor Herbert Anderson died in Seymour.
John Waggoner of Preston and John Casey of Groton attended the ceremony for the first time this year. Both men are active in numerous veterans organizations.
“Nobody ever claimed them,” Waggoner, a Vietnam veteran with the US Navy, said. “They’ve been sitting around in the urns for a long time.”
Casey, also a Vietnam veteran with the Navy, has been recording the histories of departed veterans for years, starting as a volunteer with the Patriot Guard Riders organization that grew out of a commitment to honoring veterans at funerals. He said he registers the details of the dead on memorial sites based on information collected from discharge papers as well as his own research.
“All we could find on one of them was the day he went into the Navy in 1939 and when he got out in ’45,” he said. “That’s amazing, that’s all we got.”
He said he found only one obituary through his web search. That was for Anderson, the most recent death among the eight veterans.
Anderson was born in 1933 in Bridgeport, according to the obituary. Between his birth and his 2018 death in Seymour, he served in a war, worked in a warehouse, became known as ‘The Mayor of Main Street’ and often reminded others “how precious life is and how we need to be more compassionate towards one another.” A military service was held on Oct. 22, 2018 at the local American Legion post.
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy during the ceremony revealed more about Anderson’s life, describing him as a single farmer in California when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Anderson wanted to be a pilot, according to Murphy, but lacked the requisite experience until a shortage of candidates led to the creation of a new program for pilots.
“He jumped at that opportunity,” Murphy said. “He eventually flew on bomber missions throughout the Pacific theater in World War II on the Lucky Lady and on 23 bombing runs with the Raidin’ Maiden II.”
It’s a story that is likely mirrored in the other seven veterans being interred and the many veterans who came out to honor them, the senator told the large group.
“He went above and beyond the call,” he said. “He put himself in harm’s way in order to protect this nation.”
David W. MacDonald, president of the Connecticut Funeral Directors Association and director of Wallingford Funeral Home, said there are different reasons that remains are left so long on the shelves of funeral homes.
Sometimes people die without family members, he said. Other times there’s not enough money for cremation and burial. It can be difficult for the funeral homes to locate next-of-kin. Options might be to do nothing, since the remains don’t take up much space, or to purchase a spot at a mausoleum with the funeral home’s own funds.
“In years past it was easier to not do anything, because you were afraid if you did something maybe someone would come forward,” he said. “Once this program was put in place, it gave us a safe option to give them a dignified service that I don’t think anyone would ever question.”
He said giving all unclaimed remains the burial to which they are entitled involves making sure all the funeral homes know about the program and motivating them to do their part.
He said there are 220 funeral homes with membership in the Connecticut Funeral Directors Association and approximately 30 more across the state.
Bob Dulin of Uncasville, who was in the submarine service from 1964-86, said a military funeral and burial is something each veteran earns.
“We gave. We signed our name on the line. So this is our final honor,” he said. “And when my time comes, my final detail will be here.”
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