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HONOR GUARD ENSURES NO VET DIES ALONE.

Byline: DENNIS McCARTHY

Somebody should be there to say goodbye, the old soldiers tell you. No veteran should die alone like this.

So they come to Patriotic Hall in downtown Los Angeles one Saturday a month to honor comrades who have died with no honor - indigent veterans being given a pauper's cremation by the county of Los Angeles, forgotten veterans with no family willing to claim their bodies and bury them, no friends or loved ones to stand over their coffin to say a few words.

Allen Baumann and his volunteer honor guard burial detail will say a few words. They will stand at attention in their old military uniforms, fire their muted rifles in salute over a flag-draped coffin and read off the names of the deceased.

They will honor these 14 indigent veterans who died in Los Angeles County this past month - five who served in World War II, four from Korea, two from Vietnam and three who served between wars.

No veteran should die alone and forgotten, the old soldiers say. Somebody should be there to say goodbye.

When it got down to a boombox and one soldier, Allen Baumann said enough.

The Palmdale man called up Joe Sykes, Tom Owens, Henry von Seyfried, Jack Campbell and some of his other old-veteran buddies, and told them it looked like their country needed them again.

Veterans from World War II and Korea were dying off at a rate of more than 1,400 a day, and there weren't enough active and reserve military personnel available to handle all the funerals.

Baumann had just read in the Army Times that honor guards at some veteran funerals were now down to a boombox and one soldier.

That was a national disgrace, a slap in the face to every veteran who served this country, the men agreed.

If the government couldn't guarantee its veterans an honorable military send-off, well, they'd just have to put their old uniforms back on and do it themselves.

And damned if they didn't.

They formed the United States Army Volunteer Service, a cadre of 25 to 30 old soldiers who, in the past four years, have stood over the coffins of nearly 5,000 deceased veterans - filling in for the honor guards the military couldn't provide them.

Henry von Seyfried of North Hollywood, Jack Campbell of San Clemente and some of their buddies were standing at attention at the graves of 11 veterans this past Thursday at the national veterans cemetery in Riverside.

Their eyes were straight ahead, but the men could still see the family scene at the grave site, a scene that never failed to make them take a deep breath and realize that the hours stuck on a freeway to get here - to honor men they did not know - was more than well worth it.

``You come to a funeral and see the relatives standing there and the kids are fidgeting, not paying much attention,'' Henry said. ``Then we march in, an honor guard for their grandpa.

``The kids don't fidget anymore. They stand there with a look on their face that tells you they're thinking about their grandpa in a new, different way now - thinking he must have been a pretty important man to have an honor guard like this come to his funeral.''

And when they stand at attention and fire their rifles in a salute to Grandpa, well, you never, ever, see a dry eye looking back at you, Campbell says.

``They really appreciate the fact that we have come to remember their loved one,'' he said.

A boombox and one soldier replacing that? Not while these guys are alive.

Col. Joe Smith knew it wasn't right, that indigent vets were dying without a proper military burial. But there was nothing the director of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs for Los Angeles County could do about it.

If veterans being buried by their families at private and veterans cemeteries couldn't be guaranteed an honor guard, what chance did these indigent vets with no one stand?

``These men may not have been successful in a business sense, but to someone they were a friend or loved one who had served this country when called,'' Smith said.

``There should be someone here to recognize the service they performed for their country, no matter how they wound up.''

But there wasn't anyone until Allen Baumann knocked on Smith's door at Patriotic Hall about four years ago.

He and his buddies were looking for a meeting hall so they could drill in becoming an honor guard burial detail, Baumann said.

Smith smiled and said, ``C'mon in.''

It varies, the number of indigent veterans who die in Los Angeles County every month, Smith says.

During the warm summer months, it's pretty low, like the 14 who died in September. During the cold winter months, though, it can reach 30 vets a month to whom the county gives a pauper's cremation.

But one thing never varies, the colonel says. Allen Baumann and his United States Army Volunteer Service are always there to honor them and say goodbye.

You would think the government would embrace the men and women who make up this volunteer service and offer them anything they needed.

But that would make too much sense.

To ensure that the volunteer burial service continues to grow and spread across this country, and that the volunteers in it get access to training areas and excess military materials, like uniforms, Baumann is seeking a government charter, much like the Civil Air Patrol has.

``It would legitimize us and ensure that what we're trying to do for all veterans at the end - give them a honorable military funeral - will continue after we're gone,'' said the national commander of the volunteer service.

They've been knocking on the doors of Washington, D.C.. for four years now, and so far no one in government's given them anything but lip service and a pat on the back.

``It would be nice if we could get more people to contact their congressmen and say, 'Why can't you help these people?''' Baumann says.

In the meantime, they'll keep doing what they've been doing to honor deceased vets because it's the right thing to do - government charter or no government charter, the old soldiers say.

``When you stand at a grave site and see that look in a kid's eyes that tells you he's thinking his grandpa must have been someone very special to have these soldiers come by and say goodbye, well, it doesn't get any better than that,'' Baumann said.

If you'd like more information on the United States Army Volunteer Service, or want to volunteer yourself, call Baumann at (661) 267-1425.

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

Staff Sgt. Ismael Aguilar holds one end of an American flag during a military honors ceremony at Patriotic Hall in Los Angeles.

Andy Holzman/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 13, 2002
Words:1152
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