In May 2007, The American Legion’s National Executive Committee passed Resolution 24, endorsing the Missing in America Project (MIAP) – a network of volunteers working to ensure that all veterans are properly laid to rest. Since its inception more than three years ago, MIAP has been responsible for properly interring the cremains of more than 1,000 U.S. veterans.
But earlier this year, MIAP’s work took on a bit of a different scope. On a cold, snowy morning at Calverton (N.Y.) National Cemetery, the remains of 20 veterans were laid to rest, traveling in a mile-long funeral motorcade from Queens to the cemetery. Along the way, law-enforcement officers, firefighters, veterans service organizations and U.S. citizens paid their respects, a throng of American flags waving around them.
“It was really an emotional sight,” said Legionnaire John Caldarelli, a member of Post 1244 in Greenlawn, N.Y., and the event’s organizer. “It’s difficult to express how it felt to see something like this.”
Caldarelli, the Legion rep for MIAP for Suffolk County, N.Y., and a national political representative for MIAP, said MIAP was contacted by a few veterans in Queens who wanted to give the 20 veterans – some who’d been dead for more than eight years – a proper burial but didn’t have the organization to do it. Caldarelli is normally only involved with cremains ceremonies, but he still said yes and then contacted Dignity Memorial Funeral Homes – a nationwide network of funeral, cremation and cemetery needs provider. The Dignity Memorial Homeless Veterans Burial Program has provided burial services for more than 600 homeless/indigent veterans since the program’s inception.
Dignity agreed to cover the expenses of hearses and cemetery services, freeing up Caldarelli to plan the event. “I was basically on the phone every day,” he said. “I talked to everyone I could: the New York Fire Department Piper, the fire commissioner of Nassau County, police departments, veterans groups. Then I started calling politicians and newspapers.”
Caldarelli’s efforts led a ceremony worthy of the 20 veterans. Leaving from Queens and heading more than 60 miles to the cemetery, the funeral procession – consisting of 20 hearses, New York City Police and Fire departments personnel, and various veteran motorcycle groups including American Legion Riders – was greeted along the way by flag wavers lining overpasses. Volunteer firefighters draped enormous flags from their fire trucks, and when the procession arrived at the cemetery, more than 1,000 firefighters and their vehicles were waiting, 25 American flags draped from the trucks.
With pipers playing, the caskets were loaded into a large tent where 500 people, including Legionnaires, were gathered for the ceremony. Caldarelli estimates there were easily another 500 people outside the tent area.
“It was a great turnout,” he said. “You could tell that the word had really gotten out about this.”
After each casket was draped with a U.S. flag, Caldarelli served as master of ceremonies for the service. Post 1244 Chaplain Alan Shaw gave the opening prayer, and the names of the 20 veterans, along with a little information about each, were read out loud. Guest speakers at the event included U.S. Reps Tim Bishop and Steve Israel, New York City Veterans Affairs Commissioner Terrance C. Holliday, Suffolk County Executive Steven Levy and Chris Marsh of Dignity Memorial.
Caldarelli followed with a eulogy, reading the poem “Go Gently.”
“Go gently, dear brothers, your wait is done,” he said. “Your final rest is here and peace has come.”
Following the eulogy, there was a firing of volleys and the playing of “Taps.” After the folding of the flags draping the caskets, Shaw followed with the benediction.
“I was just proud The American Legion was so well-represented at this,” Caldarelli said. “Before I was a part of the Missing in American Project, I was in The American Legion. And without the help from my post, this service wouldn’t have gone half as well as it did. I got a lot of help and support from my fellow Legionnaires.”