© 2022 WLRN
MIAMI | SOUTH FLORIDA
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Veterans With No Family Are Remembered

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.

Veteran Clifford Bisek in 2010 after he foiled a drug store robbery by swinging his cane at the thief.
Credit Photo courtesy of the Tampa Bay Times
/
Veteran Clifford Bisek in 2010 after he foiled a drug store robbery by swinging his cane at the thief.

"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.

More than two dozen riders from various veterans' motorcycle clubs came out for the May Unattended Ceremony at Bay Pines.
Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
/
More than two dozen riders from various veterans' motorcycle clubs came out for the May Unattended Ceremony at Bay Pines.

“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.

At the typical military funeral, an American Flag is folded and presented to the veteran's loved one.
Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
/
At the typical military funeral, an American Flag is folded and presented to the veteran's loved one.

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.

https://youtu.be/PDI5NbVdSeg

Copyright 2020 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7.

Bay Pines Cemetery worker Terry Clark prepares a niche in Columbarium B for the remains of Clifford Bisek, an Army and Navy veteran.
Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
/
Bay Pines Cemetery worker Terry Clark prepares a niche in Columbarium B for the remains of Clifford Bisek, an Army and Navy veteran.

Eugenia Simmons, cemetery director, and Terry Clark compare paperwork before the final interment of Clifford Bisek.
Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
/
Eugenia Simmons, cemetery director, and Terry Clark compare paperwork before the final interment of Clifford Bisek.

An interment marker is provided for all veterans buried at VA national cemeteries.
Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
/
An interment marker is provided for all veterans buried at VA national cemeteries.

Veterans line the walkway holding flags for the duration of the Unattended Ceremony at Bay Pines.
Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
/
Veterans line the walkway holding flags for the duration of the Unattended Ceremony at Bay Pines.

Marine veteran and commander of the Clearwater Chapter Marine Corps League Color Guard, Bill Cona, reads the name of 10 veterans buried without ceremony in April.
Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
/
Marine veteran and commander of the Clearwater Chapter Marine Corps League Color Guard, Bill Cona, reads the name of 10 veterans buried without ceremony in April.

The ceremony includes the folding and presenting of an American Flag usually to a loved one at military funerals.
Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
/
The ceremony includes the folding and presenting of an American Flag usually to a loved one at military funerals.

A volunteer accepts the flag usually presented to family at a military funeral.
Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
/
A volunteer accepts the flag usually presented to family at a military funeral.

The Clearwater Chapter of the Marine Corps League provides the ceremonial gun salute.
Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
/
The Clearwater Chapter of the Marine Corps League provides the ceremonial gun salute.

A bugler plays Taps as veterans salute.
Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
/
A bugler plays Taps as veterans salute.

Left to right, Bill Cona, Bob Cannon, Pete Kristall and Ron Ashley all played a part in the May Unattended Ceremony.
Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
/
Left to right, Bill Cona, Bob Cannon, Pete Kristall and Ron Ashley all played a part in the May Unattended Ceremony.

Marine veteran and volunteer Bob Cannon is the first to arrive and last to leave the Unattende Ceremony.
Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
/
Marine veteran and volunteer Bob Cannon is the first to arrive and last to leave the Unattende Ceremony.