The military creed of leaving no soldier behind takes on new meaning when it comes to veterans who have died but remain unclaimed for burial. But thanks to a volunteer collaborative effort with strong ties to Lakewood, these veterans are receiving dignity, honor and closure through the Final Roll Call – Honor’s Committal Program.
Spearheaded by Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1071 of Denver, the program’s motto drives its mission – “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.” The program provides proper burials at Fort Logan National Cemetery with a ceremony that includes an invocation prayer and other rites for the identified but unclaimed ashes of those who have served our country.
“Each name is read, a bell is rung with a high clear pitch, and we do a roll call” before a final salute, says Chapter 1071 Director and Chaplain John Altfeltis.
So far 71 sets of cremated remains have been given honor burials this spring and summer, with the remains coming primarily from WWII but also from WWI, the Korea and Vietnam wars and some who served during peacetime. While the Army has been the predominant branch represented, members of the Navy, Air Force and Marines have also found their final resting place in the ceremonies.
“After Vietnam, thrown into civilian life, we weren’t treated so well, so in that respect we try and do things for the cremated remains. We’ve been there, we’re the family for these unclaimed veterans,” explains Chapter 1071 President Stan Paprocki.
Altfeltis says the invocation prayer plays an important role because it is “basically looking over our veterans who are hurting,” as well as those who have not yet been properly laid to rest. Altfeltis, a retired pastor of a Vietnamese church in the metro area, says the ceremonies have a powerful effect on the veterans and the public who are welcomed to attend. It is “a ceremony they’ll never forget,” he adds.
Paprocki says he finds it “touching, seeing tears from strangers.”
They both are passionate about the work and understand how important it is. Altfeltis says, “Someday we’ll be the last man standing – what do we do?” He urges family members of veterans “to get your dad, uncle, grandpa’s military history recorded – at least try” while it is still possible.
This project is a true community collaboration that stretches beyond Chapter 1071’s work. It includes the Colorado Woodworkers’ Guild, Fort Logan National Cemetery, Olinger’s Mortuary and Cemetery, various Honor Guards and Mary Whitehead, who crafts the dog tags. The Woodworker’s Guild creates the urns for the cremains that have often spent years unclaimed at private mortuaries like Olinger’s, and Whitehead’s dog tag is mounted to the top of the urn to signify military service. The urns are stamped with the military branch the veteran served, and laminated paperwork bearing the veteran’s name, serial number and dates of service are interred with the urn in a Fort Logan mausoleum. They are no longer forgotten.
“Here’s the part of the love of this program – everything we do is volunteered,” Altfeltis says.
The chapter is legally able to step in to assist with the interment of these veterans’ cremains because of a unique law in Colorado, Paprocki explains. The reasons that veteran’s cremains go unclaimed vary from insufficient contact information for a relative to, sadly, simply being forgotten by subsequent generations.
Currently the cremains, which are checked and verified by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs prior to inclusion in the program, come from Olinger’s East Lawn facility, which has over 800 unclaimed cremains. The chapter has learned that Olinger’s Crown Hill has an additional 1,000 names of unclaimed veterans.
The work, at times, is exhausting, says City of Lakewood Chief Probation Officer Scott Hefty, who is a veteran and has worked to create a special court process for veterans appearing in Lakewood Municipal Court to get them connected to the services they need. “The time-consuming process is going through each one (of the veteran’s case) by hand.” Chapter members have spent long days inside mausoleums and crypts, carefully going through steel containers full of cardboard boxes that contain keepsakes and other items accompanying the ashes to provide identifying information to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which then uses it to determine if the person is a veteran who is eligible for military burial.
The program has found two military spouses and expects that there are unclaimed cremains of servicewomen that will also come to light. Paprocki says volunteers are constantly researching names, sending in a few every week to the Veterans Affairs office in St. Louis for review. Once enough have been identified, then another interment ceremony will be scheduled.
Chapter 1071 is based in Denver but holds its meetings in Lakewood at 10 a.m. on the third Saturday of the month at the Elks Lodge, 1455 Newland St. While full chapter membership – which is on the rise with more than 170 active members – is reserved for Vietnam-era veterans, associate membership is open to all.
The chapter is “truly something where you can give back to the community,” says Hefty, who is an associate member of Chapter 1071. He says the work that chapter members perform is almost “too good to be true. They are doing more on a monthly basis than others do yearly.”