It happens hundreds, if not thousands, of times a year nationwide. A veteran dies, but there’s no family nearby. So, the Department of Veterans Affairs steps up to handle the burial.
It’s called an “Unattended Interment.” There is no service, no ceremony, just two VA employees with the remains of a 72-year-old Vietnam veteran in a rectangular metal box on a bright and breezy spring morning.
There were 10 such burials in April at the Bay Pines National Cemetery in St. Petersburg. The National Cemeteries Administration does not track the number of unattended interments nationally, but it operates more than 130 sites throughout the country.
Bay Pines worker Terry Clark unfastens the stone covering of a niche at the outdoor Columbarium B and prepares it for the interment of Clifford Leo Bisek.
Cemetery director Eugenia Simmons arrives, holding close to her heart the metal box with his ashes. They check and double check the paperwork. The box slides into the niche and the cover is replaced.
Simmons signs a form and then reaches out and pats the granite stone covering Bisek’s niche.
Bisek was a sergeant in the Army during the Vietnam Era and later served in the Navy. Eight years ago, the Tampa resident briefly became a local hero when he foiled a drug store robbery chasing away the thief with his cane.
"Safety of the other people comes before mine," Bisek told the Tampa Tribune at the time. "It has been in my system practically all my life."
In March, Bisek died from heart disease. He was found sitting outside the Tampa motel room where he lived. Inside his room, police discovered old paperwork from the VA, but he had no close relatives.
So, the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner sent Bisek’s cremated remains to the nearest VA Cemetery, Bay Pines. Simmons said because Florida has so many retirees, it’s common for veterans to die with no family or no relatives nearby.
“We give them a dignified burial,” Simmons said. “And once the cremated remains are placed, we send the information to the family so they know how to locate their loved one.”
Under federal law, every eligible veteran is entitled to a military funeral if the family requests it. When there is no family present, the veteran can still be interred, but without an individual ceremony.
But at Bay Pines, a group of volunteers tries to make sure that even those veterans who lack close family get the recognition they deserve. On the first Tuesday of every month, they gather to pay tribute to all of them.
Marine veteran Bob Cannon has organized every service for nearly two decades at Bay Pines.
“I’m a Vietnam veteran. When I came back, I had, let’s say, I had not a very good welcome home,” Cannon said. “And this is what we’re trying to do, make sure that veterans, that have died, they get a good welcome and send off.”
That send-off at Bay Pines starts with a motorcycle “ride-by” with veteran Randall McNabb as ride captain. For the May ceremony, more than two dozen riders showed up.
“I love these guys. They spend their own time and their own dime to get out for these veterans.” McNabb said.
A half-dozen veteran service organizations volunteer on a rotating basis to conduct the monthly service. This May, the Marine Corps League Clearwater Chapter had the honors.
Sharply dressed in a pressed white shirt, decorated with ribbons and medals from past service, the Color Guard commander, Bill Cona, oversaw the service.
The ceremony is brief. It includes a prayer, the presentation of the colors and the reading of the deceased veterans’ names followed by the ringing of a bell – a Navy tradition. There’s a three-volley gun salute and the playing of Taps.
It's important to Cona to be here for his comrades, like Bisek, just as he hopes someone will be there for him.
“I don’t think of them having no one around because we’re here. And we’ll always be here,” Cona said choking up a little.
Typically, at military funerals, the color guard presents a folded American Flag to the veteran’s family. But here, the flag was symbolically handed to a volunteer. Then, it will be used again at next month’s ceremony.