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Making Sure Indigent Veterans Receive Proper Burials

Legion Becomes Family That Helps Lay Them To Rest In National Cemeteries

Memorial Day is an occasion to remember the people who have served the US, but there are some destitute veterans in New York City have no family to bury them.

The funeral for unclaimed, indigent veteran Arthur Mindiola Mercao was held at George Werst funeral Home in Glendale the morning of Wednesday, Apr. 10. Pictured in the left photo (at far left) is Paul Schottenhamel, adjutant and commander of the Queens County American Legion Garity Post 562; at right is Rev. Philip Sica, Queens County American Legion chaplain. Members of the American Legion (in right photo) are joined by State Sen. Joseph Addabbo (right) and Assemblyman Mike Miller (second from right) in saluting the casket as it is loaded into a hearse bound for Calverton National Cemetery in Long Island.

Veterans groups in Queens are making sure those soldiers get the burial they deserve, as a token of thanks for a grateful nation.

Paul Schottenhamel, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and member of the American Legion who lives in Glendale, heads a program that helps ensure unclaimed, indigent vets are buried in a national cemetery.

He said TheAmerican Legion and a number of other veteran’s organizations have partnered with the Mayor’s Office for Veteran’s Affairs (MOVA) to inter vets who died in the city at Calverton National Cemetery on Long Island.

Schottenhamel said there are no spaces in national cemeteries left in the metropolitan area, but the city cannot transport bodies outside of its boundaries or contract with funeral homes to ferry the dead. The quandary would leave indigent veterans to be buried in common graves on Hart Island.

That’s where veteran’s groups like the American Legion step in.

Schottenhamel said the American Legion works with George Werst Funeral Home, Patriot Guard Riders and the 11th Regiment of the United States Volunteers America, to transport the unclaimed and give them a proper ceremony.

Patriot Guard Riders often provide a motorcycle escort, while the 11th regiment plays “Taps”-the military funeral dirge-and fires off the traditional “three volleys of musketry.” The whole endeavor is volunteer based, he said.

The city pays $900 for every unclaimed vet’s burial, according to a city spokesperson.

Funeral homes work at cost and sometimes donate items-everyone else is working for free, Schottenhamel said.

“When these individuals get assigned to us, they become our family- the American Legion family,” he said.

He said the legion has buried about 20 vets since it started partici- and there are usually four to five burials a year.

Schottenhamel said if the city identifies a vet that has died who has no family or friends to arrange the burial, it contacts friendly organizations like the American legion to help the vets get the burial they deserve.

There are six such organizations- three in Queens, one in Manhattan and one that operates nation-wide, according to the city.

Many times, it is unclear whether indigents were veterans until documents or evidence like dog tags can be recovered from their personal possessions. In some cases, the city has dis-interred caskets from common graves so veteran’s organizations can give the body a proper funeral at Calvaton.

While the dead may be identified as veterans, little else is known about many of them.

“One of the biggest problems is I cannot even find out the religious preferences of these people,” Schottenhamel said.

Many are buried using the American Legion’s standard procedure, which Schottenhamel has generalized for unclaimed indigents.

Not all vets are completely unknown, though. When he has leads, Schottenhamel does a little legwork to find out more about those he’s been charged with.

He recalled one Merchant Marine about whom he was able to find more information. According to a ship manifest, the individual’s nationality was listed as Hebrew. Using an ancestry database, Schottenhamel was able to find out the man was of Russian Jewish descent, and used the information on the man’s grave marker, he said.

More often than not, Schottenhamel only knows the soldiers served their country.

“The individuals we’re dealing with usually fly beneath the radar,” he said. “Ninety percent of the time, the only information we have is the date of birth-not even where-service dates, and the final place of res- idence and/or death.”

The American Legion held a funeral for unclaimed, indigent vet Arthur Mindiola Mercao, the morning of Wednesday, Apr. 10.

Mercao was born on May 8, 1942 and served in the US Army during the Vietnam War era. The service was held at 9:30 a.m at George Werst Funeral Home, 71-41 Cooper Ave. in Glendale. The hearse departed at 10 a.m. to take Mercao to Calverton National Cemetery. Members of the American Legion were joined by State Sen. Joseph Addabbo and Assemblyman Mike Miller during the funeral.

So far, the program has assisted with the burial of 211 veterans, according to a City spokesperson.

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