When Veterans Die Without Loved Ones, These Volunteers Make Sure They Have A Send Off

May 22, 2018

Memorial Day is set aside to remember those who died in military service. But a group of military veterans in Florida works all year to commemorate their comrades who died with no family by their side.

Vietnam-era veteran Clifford Leo Bisek died alone, while sitting outside the Tampa motel room where he lived. He had no close family members and no friends nearby.

But a handful of strangers made sure he received a proper farewell.

They're among a group of veterans who hold small monthly ceremonies at the Bay Pines National Cemetery in St. Petersburg, Fla. On the first Tuesday of every month, they gather to pay tribute to their fellow veterans who have passed away without loved ones.

"What we're trying to do is make sure that everybody gets a good welcome and send off," said Marine veteran Bob Cannon, who has organized every service for nearly two decades at Bay Pines. "I'm a Vietnam veteran. When I came back, I had not a very good welcome home."

Under federal law, every eligible veteran is entitled to a military funeral if the family requests it. When there are no relatives present, the veteran can still be interred at a VA cemetery, but without an individual ceremony. The agency calls it an "Unattended Interment."

There were 10 such burials in April at Bay Pines. The VA's National Cemeteries Administration does not track the number of unattended interments nationally, but it operates more than 130 sites throughout the country.

A soldier, sailor, and local hero

At Cliff Bisek's interment, two VA employees carried the ashes of the 72-year-old veteran in a rectangular metal box. Cemetery director Eugenia Simmons held it close to her heart, as she and cemetery worker Terry Clark double checked the paperwork. They slid the box into the niche at the outdoor columbarium.

Simmons signed a form and -- in a final gesture -- patted the granite stone covering Bisek's niche.

"Whenever I do an interment, somebody has to say goodbye," Simmons said.

Cliff Bisek, pictured in 2010, was an Army and Navy veteran. He died alone without any close family members.
Credit Chris Urso / Tampa Tribune, courtesy Tampa Bay Times

Bisek was a sergeant in the Army during the Vietnam Era and later served in the Navy. Eight years ago, the Tampa resident briefly became a local hero when he foiled a drug store robbery by chasing away the thief with his cane.

"Safety of the other people comes before mine," Bisek told the Tampa Tribune at the time. "It has been in my system practically all my life."

In March, Bisek died from heart disease. Inside his motel room, police discovered old paperwork from the VA, so the county medical examiner sent Bisek's cremated remains to Bay Pines.

Simmons said because Florida has so many retirees, it's common for veterans to die with no family or no relatives nearby.

"We give them a dignified burial," Simmons said, "and then once the cremated remains are placed, we send information to the family so they know how to locate their loved one."

'We'll always be here'

A half dozen local veterans service organizations volunteer at Bay Pines on a rotating basis to conduct the monthly service for the unattended interments. At the most recent service, the send-off began with a motorcycle "ride-by" with veteran Randall McNabb as ride captain. More than two dozen riders showed up.

Bay Pines Cemetery Director Eugenia Simmons bids farewell to veteran Cliff Bisek, one of 10 unattended interments at Bay Pines in April, 2018.
Credit Bobbie O'Brien / American Homefront

"I love these guys," McNabb said. "They spend their own time and their own dime to get out here and stand for these veterans."

The ceremony is brief. It includes a prayer, the presentation of the colors, and the reading of the name of each veteran who was intered that month. Each name is followed by the ringing of a bell - a Navy tradition. There's a three-volley gun salute and the playing of Taps.

Sharply dressed in a pressed white shirt decorated with ribbons and medals from past service, Clearwater Marine Corps Color Guard commander Bill Cona oversaw the service. It's important to him to be at the cemetery for his comrades, just as he hopes someone will be there for him.

"I don't really think about them not having anyone around because we're here, and we'll always be here," Cona said,  choking up a little.

Typically at military funerals, the color guard presents a folded American Flag to the veteran's family. But at these ceremonies, the flag is symbolically handed to a volunteer. Then, it will be used again at next month's ceremony.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.