Where have all the soldiers gone? Gone to graveyards every one. -- Pete Seeger, 1961
James Francis Walter Ford's death was certain, but his life remained a mystery. After he was accidentally struck and killed by a tow truck in San Diego May 21, authorities couldn't find his family or a permanent address. A Veterans Administration identification card led to military records showing Ford, 52, had served in the Navy during the Vietnam War. That was about the only work history available. The San Diego County Public Administrator's office concluded that Ford was a homeless veteran living on the street.
Retired Air Force captain Lucille Rosedale Tubbs of Rancho Peñasquitos -- herself a veteran of World War II -- wept to think that Ford spent his final days homeless, penniless, apparently without relatives, and possibly friendless. On June 23 Tubbs brought red carnations to Ford's burial rites, which were part of a service honoring not only all veterans who died in San Diego County the previous month but also those veterans whose cremated remains were mailed to Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery.
In that group of 273 deceased military men and women, there were 4 other indigent veterans besides Ford. Dale Larson, 79, who served in the Marines during World War II, died alone in an El Cajon nursing home. Chester Joseph Whalen, 58, who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, had been living in his van. Former Navy petty officer second class Ebb Strong, 43, lived on the brink of homelessness, sharing a downtown hotel room with two other men. Information was even more sketchy on former Marine James Lawrence Mitchell, 71.
"It's a chance for us to say good-bye to these people who don't have anyone," said Tubbs, who regularly attends the commemorations, held the fourth Saturday each month at the Veterans Memorial Building in Balboa Park. "It's an hour out of the month . . . to sit there and pray, to say good-bye, and say thank you for your service. This is what I want to do," she said, clutching her donations of flowers. "White is the color of death. I chose red. It looks good with the flag."
Tubbs is among dozens of volunteers from several organizations that participate. The Sea Cadets, teenagers learning about the military, provide the color guard -- marching with and displaying the United States flag. The 82nd Airborne Division Association's San Diego All Airborne Chapter, mostly former Army parachutists, form the honor guard, which fires a rifle salute to their fallen comrades. Full of solemnity and symbolism, the monthly memorial service developed from an idea.
Two years ago, Cynthia Nuñez, director of Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, proposed honoring the cremated remains that are mailed to her for burial in the ground or for inurnment in the columbarium. Each month as many as 50 packages containing ashes of veterans arrive from across the country and sometimes from overseas. With each parcel Nuñez wonders whether there has been a family service at the point of origin or whether the ashes were shipped by a funeral home heeding the written instructions of a veteran who died alone.
On hearing Nuñez's concerns that veterans deserved a tribute beyond her private prayers, David Brown, editor of Veterans Journal, organized a public ceremony in January 2000. He sought volunteers from the San Diego County United Veterans Council, an umbrella organization for many groups. To ensure greater involvement of the community, the ceremony is held at 11:30 a.m., after the council's monthly meeting and outside the Veterans Memorial Building, in Balboa Park, where the group gathers. Brown expanded the event to include all military personnel who have died the previous month in San Diego County.
"I thought that was a marvelous idea," recalls Brown, 65, a former warrant officer second class in the British Grenadier Guards. He also contributed his knowledge of pomp and circumstance. To memorialize the San Diego County veterans and the ashes mailed to Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, their names are read aloud. After every 25th name, a bell rings twice. "At the end of every battle, the British Royal Navy had roll call. If the name was called and there was no answer, the bell was rung to signify death," Brown explained. "The service evokes an emotion inside that's overpowering. I lost 18 friends during my service in the British Army."
Clayton Becker, a retired Navy petty officer first class, 62, said the roll call makes him nostalgic, too. "It even reminds me of people in my past who weren't in the service, old school chums, people I know." On playing taps to help conclude each monthly service, Becker thinks about how the tune dates back to the Civil War, yet it never sounds exactly the same; it varies with each bugler and each performance. "What separates us from other animals is human beings have a lengthier remorse, mourning, or memory," he said. "Remembrance is the mark of civilization."
More than 400 names of deceased San Diego County veterans have been read some months, said Cynthea Brown, who is Brown's wife and editor of Alert, a newsletter for Pearl Harbor survivors. She spends 15 to 20 hours a month compiling the list from the San Diego Union-Tribune's obituary notices. "Because I come from a military family, it's a labor of love," said Brown, the daughter, sister, and niece of Marines. "It's personally significant. I know a lot of those veterans on the list."
Nationwide, 1425 veterans die each day on average, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Of those, the majority -- 73 percent -- are World War II veterans, whose median age is 79. The death count is expected to rise through 2008 and then decline.
San Diego County is reputed to have one of the nation's largest populations of active and retired military -- a claim the Veterans Affairs Department cannot verify. With about 10 veterans dying a day in the county, the death toll is significant. "Since January we've lost 17 in our group alone," said Stuart Hedley, retired Navy chief electrician mate, 79, of Clairemont. Hedley was referring to the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association in San Diego, which has about 320 members. The survivors not only attend the individual funerals of their deceased members, but they also participate in the monthly memorial service. Identifiable by their aloha shirts and white slacks, they take turns reading the names of the dead. Fellow survivor retired Navy quarter master first class Paul La Chappell, 78, of El Cajon, rings the bell. Each month he recognizes names of acquaintances and friends.