Lonely service for a loner who served.
Even with a name, Robert Young Heller died an unknown soldier.
But anonymity didn't obscure his service to country, and so Heller received military honors at a near-empty funeral chapel in Eugene Tuesday afternoon. He will be buried at Willamette National Cemetery in Portland today or Thursday.
Those who gathered at England's Eugene Memorial Chapel did so despite knowing little or nothing about Heller, who died Dec. 12 of lung cancer at age 62.
Heller was homeless as recently as last year, living at the Eugene Mission for about a month. He beat back pneumonia and survived heart surgery, only to receive his cancer prognosis last summer. For the past year he had lived on government support at Hillside Heights Rehabilitation Center, a Eugene nursing home.
He had no relatives in Oregon and was estranged from his extended family. He was divorced.
He drove a taxi in Eugene for many years.
And between Jan. 8, 1964, and Aug. 27, 1965, he served in the United States Air Force.
Little more is known about his military service, said David Buzo at the Veterans Administration's regional office in Portland, because Heller never made a claim for VA benefits.
But the mere fact that Heller was a veteran was enough information for Glenn Knox, funeral director at England's, to decide that Heller deserved a proper memorial. Knox agreed to absorb casket and other funeral costs under a homeless veterans burial program that England's participates in.
And when he learned that Tuesday was National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day, as decreed by the National Coalition for the Homeless, Knox speeded up his timetable so that Heller could be memorialized that day.
Knox, an Army veteran, also got on the phone: A three-member honor guard from McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma was quick to commit. So was Judi Greig, a local Vietnam Veterans of America activist and former commander.
"In basic training, they teach you camaraderie and to watch each other's backs and to be there for each other," Greig said. "That's why I'm here today."
Molly Deem, R.N. care manager at Hillside Heights, was unable to attend but said she was delighted to learn about the efforts made on Heller's behalf. "It's an extension of the final respects you pay somebody who survived and persevered," she said.
Deem described Heller as a slender, almost elfin man who wore a full beard - and a baseball cap that often hid the ponytail that trailed from his "chrome dome" scalp.
"He lived this covered-up kind of life," she said. "He kept to himself and was pretty stoic."
Heller almost always wore a blue quilted winter coat - unaware or unfazed that it was obviously cut for a woman, Deem said. "He must have got it at a thrift store somewhere," she said.
He was also a voracious reader who spent almost all his time in his room - especially after quitting cigarettes and not needing to visit the nursing home's covered smoking porch, Deem said.
"He just laid on his bed, but you'd never ever find him sleeping," she said. "I think he did a lot of thinking, contemplating things."
There was plenty to contemplate at Tuesday's brief service, where Eugene Mission chaplain Rick Ausmus looked out over a sanctuary with exactly three people in the pews - Greig, Knox and fellow veteran Rick Ormand.
Ausmus memorialized Heller as someone with the opportunity to have known Christ. "We thank Robert for his service, and commend his spirit to you," Ausmus said in prayer.
He then asked if anyone in attendance knew Heller and could speak for him. The room fell quiet - until Senior Airmen Brent Bakazan and Jake McRary snapped to attention.
The two carefully removed the American flag from atop Heller's casket and solemnly folded it - as fellow airman and bugler Jesse Hope, in the back of the room, played a haunting, flawless rendition of "Taps."
Because Heller had no family in attendance, McRary presented the folded flag to Ormand, a retired sheriff's deputy who lives in Springfield.
"God bless you, and thank you for serving," McRary told Ormand.
"Thank you, thank you very much," Ormand replied.
Ormand said he hopes to eventually present the flag to someone in Heller's family - but that he was happy to step in Tuesday.
"I am his family today," he said.
As for the honor guard, they left Tacoma at 8 a.m. to be sure to arrive in time, then left immediately afterward to participate in another service in Portland.
But Bakazan said he and his comrades have no complaints about a task they all volunteered for.
"It's an honor and privilege to do it, for someone who served this country," he said. "It's an honor to take care of them."
As an honor guard prepares to fold the flag, a solemn but sparsely attended military funeral for veteran Robert Young Heller comes to a quiet end Tuesday at England's Eugene Memorial Chapel. Heller, a former taxi driver, was divorced and had no relatives in Oregon.
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|Title Annotation:||Vitals; The military community stands up to honor formerly homeless veteran Robert Young Heller at his death|
|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2004|
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