A Soldier’s Send-off

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On Wednesday, February 13, Frank Lombardi’s flag-draped casket laid before a parlor within the George Werst Funeral Home in Glendale. Somber, yet pride-filled looks filled the faces of service attendees. But those faces were of those that didn’t know the deceased. They didn’t even know much more than his name. They didn’t have to. Like Lombardi, those in attendance had at one point raised their right hand and took an oath to serve their country. Unfortunately for Lombardi, after his death, his body remained unclaimed by friends or family, but those in the room claimed him as one of their brothers and came together to give him the send-off he deserved.

This act of burying indigent servicemen, those that had no one else to bury them, is an almost monthly occurrence for those of the Queens County American Legion. American Legion members from Rockaway, Breezy Point, Broad Channel and other parts of Queens and even Long Island, come together to pay their respects to a fellow soldier that has passed. On the second Wednesday of the month, if there is a body of a veteran that needs to be laid to rest, these fellow veterans are there to be the ones to make it possible.

Oftentimes, there is very little known about the deceased, other than a name and some information about their military service, as confirmed by the veteran’s DD-214. During a eulogy presented by Queens County American Legion Adjutant Paul Schottenhamel, those in attendance got to learn a bit about Lombardi, who was born in Brooklyn on April 4, 1936. Lombardi was drafted into the U.S. Army on June 23, 1960. He trained as a Light Weapons Infantryman and deployed to the Federal Republic of Germany in November 1960. He was assigned to Company A, 2nd Battle Group, 4th Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division, in Bamberg. Lombardi served in Germany for one year and seven months, before he returned to the United States and was released from Active Duty on June 14, 1962 at Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn. He remained a member of the Inactive Reserve until May 1966. After he died on November 23, 2018, there was no family to claim his body. At least not blood.

“We’re their family,” Schottenhamel said. Originally the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) handled the local funerals, until Schottenhamel became aware of them and decided that the Queens County American Legion should step in. “When I heard about this, I felt like the VVA was doing too much work, so we wanted to get involved,” Schottenhamel said. Rockaway resident, Mike Honan said, “I was county commander at the time and Paul came to me and said, ‘they’re involved, so why shouldn’t we?’ The membership agreed and we proceeded to become an organizational friend and get involved in this program.”

Honan explained that the process of burying veterans with no family to claim them starts with the city’s Department of Veterans Services, which, working with the NYPD and other agencies, helps determine if a body that is found is that of a service member. Normally, an unclaimed body winds up being buried in Potter’s Field on Hart Island, in an unmarked grave with dozens of others. But when it’s a veteran, the service member is eligible to be buried in a military cemetery. The city cannot be directly involved in the burial, which is where organizational friends such as VVA and the American Legion step in to handle the services. When the Queens County American Legion became involved, Schottenhamel reached out to those at the George Werst Funeral Home for assistance. As a member of the Dignity Memorial network, the Glendale funeral home not only agreed to assist with the burials, but to cover all associated costs and refuse any eligible reimbursement from the city, according to Honan.

For those who attend the services, holding such funerals has personal meaning and there’s a deep sense of pride in being able to give a fellow service member a proper military funeral. “These people have nobody to mourn them and every veteran, we mourn, no matter what. Everybody that attends these funerals served their country during times of war. I served. We know what they did, that’s why we come here,” Rockaway American Legion member Jim Trainor said.

Before leading the service, Chaplain John Fiore spoke with passion, about his connection to each service. “Here’s a guy that wore the uniform and throughout the misfortune of his life, he now has no family, no friends, nobody. If we didn’t intervene on this, he’d be in Potter’s Field in a hole with 15 or 20 other bodies and no one to speak for him, no headstones, no honor, nothing. That’s not exactly what he had in mind when he raised his right hand and said to this country, ‘I’ll defend you,’” Fiore said. “As Chaplain, I handle the prayers for these services, but I wouldn’t think of doing anything else. On my last breath, I’d be here first. We become his family. We all raised our hand, some of us were involved in combat, and I’m thankful to be alive. I look at my family every time I come home from one of these funerals and I thank God that I have someone that will take my flag and come visit me. So now this gentleman will have someone to be there for him in a place where we all congregate. This is a brotherhood. It goes beyond family. Our lives depended on this guy. Every American Legion in every state should be doing this. There should be no unattended veterans going somewhere in a lonely grave, never to be spoken about again. He deserves more than the 15 guys he’d be buried with on Hart Island, and today he gets it.”

Lombardi’s funeral was the 73rd of its kind that the Queens County American Legion has participated in over the past decade. At the end of the service, several members in attendance approached the casket and either saluted or kissed it, with many saying, “Farewell Comrade” to their fellow soldier. Following the service at the George Werst Funeral Home, the soldier’s casket is placed in a hearse and taken to Calverton National Cemetery in Long Island, followed by a procession of American Legion members, VVA members and others. They’re met by members of the Patriot Guard motorcycle group and an honor guard at the cemetery. There, another small ceremony is held at an outdoor chapel, complete with the playing of taps, and the ceremonial folding of the flag from the soldier’s casket, which is usually accepted by a gold star mother, who knows what it means to lose a son in uniform. The soldier is then buried in a grave, complete with a headstone.

For Breezy Point resident and Queens County American Legion Commander, Marty Ingram, the ceremony is an emotional experience, but not just because a fellow soldier is being laid to rest. “I’m not an emotional guy, but I get emotional at these things, not for the guy that died, but for these guys that do these efforts. This is what the American Legion does. We take care of other veterans. It’s almost like our own version of the unknown soldier. This is the epitome of what it means to be a part of the American Legion,” Ingram said.

Indigent veteran funerals are not just open to American Legion members. Anyone is welcome to attend the ceremony, typically held the second Wednesday of each month at 9:30 a.m. at the George Werst Funeral Home on Cooper Avenue in Glendale. For more information, call the American Legion Daniel M. O’Connell Post 272 at 718-318-1625.

“I think if more people knew about this, they would participate, because why wouldn’t you? It’s the least you can do for someone that gave up at least two or three years of their lives to serve this country,” Breezy Point American Legion member Bruce Robertson said.

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