Vets ensure final send-off for brethren
Volunteer honor guards assume tribute role in absence of active-duty, reserve military
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
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.
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.