Vets en­sure fi­nal send-off for brethren

Vol­un­teer honor guards as­sume trib­ute role in ab­sence of ac­tive-duty, re­serve mil­i­tary

San Francisco Chronicle - - BAY AREA - By Carl Nolte

Nel­son Lum re­mem­bers re­turn­ing to San Fran­cisco, his home­town, af­ter his ser­vice with the U.S. Army in Vietnam. It was 1968 and there was a lot of hos­til­ity to­ward veter­ans of that war.

It was “a time of protests,” he said. “They looked at us as be­ing vil­lains, in­stead of the gov­ern­ment pol­icy that pro­duced the war.”

The Bay Area was one of the cen­ters of protests and marches against the war, which was prob­a­bly the most un­pop­u­lar mil­i­tary con­flict in Amer­i­can his­tory. Veter­ans took some of the brunt. A tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­tary that be­gins air­ing Sun­day night by ac­claimed his­to­rian Ken

Burns is sure to re­vive some of those bit­ter mem­o­ries.

But to­day, Lum said, peo­ple see Vietnam veter­ans dif­fer­ently than they did five decades ago. “At­ti­tudes have changed com­pletely,” he said. There’s more re­spect for war veter­ans in gen­eral, he said. And he wants to make sure Vietnam veter­ans are not for­got­ten.

“We want to make sure they are not treated the way we were treated,” he said.

Lum, a re­tired San Fran­cisco po­lice sergeant, is com­man­der of Cathay Post 384 of the Amer­i­can Le­gion, the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s first Chi­nese Amer­i­can unit. Like other le­gion posts, his group looks out for veter­ans, marches in pa­rades, spon­sors youth ac­tiv­i­ties. But they also pro­vide honor guards, who at­tend funeral ser­vices for veter­ans, be­stow­ing a last trib­ute for men and women who have served their coun­try.

More and more of these ser­vices are for Vietnam veter­ans, who served be­tween 1964 and 1975 and are now in their late 60s and 70s.

A to­tal of 2,709,918 Amer­i­cans served in Vietnam and 58,202 died in the war. There are no re­li­able sta­tis­tics as to how many of those who came home are still liv­ing, and the fed­eral Veter­ans Administration does not mea­sure the rate at which they are dy­ing.

Bu there are far more Vietnam veter­ans than any other wartime group. Ac­cord­ing to the Veter­ans Administration, only 558,000 of the 16 mil­lion who served in World War II are still alive.

By law, ev­ery per­son who served hon­or­ably in the mil­i­tary is en­ti­tled to a fi­nal honor: a grave marker, a flag, and a grave­side ser­vice, in­clud­ing a fi­nal bu­gle call — the mourn­ful sound of “Taps.”

But the mil­i­tary hon­ors are not al­ways pos­si­ble these days. In the Vietnam War era, the Bay Area was ringed with mil­i­tary posts. The Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force had a big pres­ence in the re­gion. But those days are over, and ac­tive duty and re­serve mil­i­tary are hard-pressed to sup­ply hon­ors at fu­ner­als.

So vol­un­teers have stepped up.

Some are veter­ans groups like the Amer­i­can Le­gion. Oth­ers are small groups like the Sacra­mento Val­ley Na­tional Ceme­tery Honor Guard in Solano County and the United States Vol­un­teers-Amer­ica, based on the Penin­sula. Both groups pro­vide uni­formed honor guards for veter­ans of all wars.

The last salute is im­por­tant. “It’s an honor to do it,” said Lu Pi­etrowski, a Vietnam vet­eran who co­or­di­nates the pro­gram at the Sacra­mento Val­ley ceme­tery in Dixon. “These are our broth­ers and sis­ters. They put their lives on the line for this coun­try.” But it’s also for the fam­i­lies. “The grave­side hon­ors is the last thing that the fam­ily will re­mem­ber about their loved ones,” said Leo McAr­dle of Daly City, who be­longs to the United States Vol­un­teers.

“The fam­i­lies ap­pre­ci­ate what we do,” Pi­etrowski said. “You can see it in their faces, es­pe­cially when we salute and present the flag to the next of kin. It re­ally gets you. Some­times I’ve walked away with tears in my eyes my­self.”

Pi­etrowski, 66, be­came in­volved not long af­ter the Sacra­mento Val­ley Na­tional Ceme­tery was es­tab­lished 10 years ago. The ceme­tery and the San Joaquin Val­ley Na­tional Ceme­tery opened af­ter smaller places, like the Golden Gate Na­tional Ceme­tery in San Bruno, filled up. Golden Gate is now closed to new buri­als.

The Sacra­mento Val­ley Na­tional Ceme­tery now has 30,672 graves, and is one of the largest of the coun­try’s 135 na­tional ceme­ter­ies.

The Dixon honor guard started about 2008, when a vet named Andy Der­flinger no­ticed a grave­side ser­vice with no honor guard be­cause mil­i­tary per­son­nel weren’t avail­able. Der­flinger re­mem­bered the cold re­cep­tion Vietnam veter­ans got when they re­turned, and be­lieved they de­served more, es­pe­cially at the end of their lives. So he or­ga­nized an honor guard of civil­ians.

Pi­etrowski took it over when Der­flinger died last win­ter. At present the or­ga­ni­za­tion has 16 vol­un­teers.

The honor guards of­fi­ci­ate two and some­times three times daily. “Most of the buri­als now are Vietnam veter­ans,” said Pi­etrowski, 66.

The vol­un­teers wear uni­forms, and march to the grave site. Some­times the de­tail will con­sist of as few as two or three vol­un­teers, who will per­form “Taps,” fold the flag that cov­ers the coffin, and present it to the next of kin.

If they have enough per­son­nel and the fam­ily re­quests it, they will per­form full hon­ors, in­clud­ing the ul­ti­mate fi­nal mil­i­tary honor — a ri­fle vol­ley, ex­e­cuted with care­ful pre­ci­sion. To be sure the cer­e­mony is done prop­erly, the honor guards prac­tice close or­der and weapons drills.

McAr­dle, of the 31st Cal­i­for­nia Reg­i­ment of the U.S. Veter­ans, op­er­ates in con­nec­tion with the Golden Gate Na­tional Ceme­tery, but has about 30 vol­un­teers all around North­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

Like most honor guard vol­un­teers, they are usu­ally con­tacted by a vet­eran’s fam­ily or a funeral home.

“We never ac­cept a fee,” McAr­dle said. “But one time, at the San Joaquin ceme­tery, we did a ser­vice for a very poor vet­eran, a World War II guy. The fam­ily came in an old car and a pickup truck, held to­gether with duct tape and wire. The coffin was card­board.

“We did full hon­ors and a rel­a­tive in­sisted we take a gift,” McAr­dle said. “He pressed it on me, and I couldn’t refuse. It was a dol­lar and some change. It was all they had.”

McAr­dle, 72, served two tours in Vietnam. “I love the mil­i­tary, and would have stayed in were it not for a dis­abil­ity I got,” he said. He has no po­lit­i­cal views on the war. “I was mil­i­tary and I did my job whether I liked it or not,” he said.

Lum, who was drafted and served in the 101st Air­borne Divi­sion in Vietnam, said the mil­i­tary gave him a pur­pose in life and the GI bill en­abled him to get a col­lege ed­u­ca­tion.

“I would do it again,” he said. “It is the best thing that ever hap­pened to me.”

“These are our broth­ers and sis­ters. They put their lives on the line for this coun­try.” Lu Pi­etrowski, honor guard

Michael Short / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

Mem­bers of the Sacra­mento Val­ley Na­tional Ceme­tery Honor Guard, Ken Tiger (left), Jerry Hicks, Tom Murry and Ralph Kenyon, demon­strate a ri­fle salute hon­or­ing de­ceased veter­ans at the Sacra­mento Val­ley Na­tional Ceme­tery.

Photos by Michael Short / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

With many Vietnam veter­ans dy­ing, Honor Guard vol­un­teers such as Lu Pi­etrowski at­tend in uni­form and per­form mil­i­tary hon­ors at more of their fu­ner­als.

Grave­side hon­ors at mil­i­tary fu­ner­als in­clude fold­ing the Amer­i­can flag and pre­sent­ing it to next of kin. Vol­un­teer honor guards want to make sure that veter­ans re­ceive the trib­ute.

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