Black History Month and VA’s Caretakers of History


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Photo of Steve MuroAs we celebrate Black History Month, it’s worth considering the National Cemetery Administration’s unique role as caretakers of that history. This year’s theme, “African Americans and the Civil War,” has special meaning for those of us dedicated to honoring and memorializing the service of veterans.

In his proclamation heralding the month, President Obama invites us “to reflect on 150 years since the Civil War and on the patriots of a young country who fought for the promises of justice and equality laid out by our forebears.” He notes that “Tens of thousands of African Americans enlisted in the United States Army and Navy, making extraordinary sacrifices to help unite a fractured country and free millions from slavery. These gallant soldiers…served with distinction, braving both intolerance and the perils of war to inspire a Nation and expand the domain of freedom.”

An estimated 200,000 African Americans served during the Civil War and 25 earned the Medal of Honor. An Army report from 1870-71 indicates perhaps as many as 31,000 of these patriots are buried in more than 15 cemeteries NCA now manages. Sadly, it appears more of them are unknown to history (approx. 19,000) than known (approx. 12,000). The largest numbers are laid to rest in our national cemeteries in Natchez, Mississippi, Memphis and Nashville.Photo of a statue

Nashville National Cemetery is one of two in our system featuring monuments to U.S. Colored Troops (as black soldiers were then referred to.) The other is Fort Scott, Kan. The 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry was assigned to the fort in 1863 and took part in five engagements. The 1st Kansas suffered more casualties than any other unit in the state. A granite monument erected at the cemetery in 1984 honors the regiment’s members.

Nashville and Fort Scott National Cemeteries are both also listed in the National Register of Historic Places, two of many NCA cemeteries and soldiers lots designated as historic. Places earning such recognition are generally associated with events or people that have made significant contributions to U.S. history—and caring for them is part of our sacred trust.

Yet it is important to recognize that our work is as much about the future as the past. We often say cemeteries are for the living, meaning they give comfort to survivors’ friends and families. But by preserving stories of selflessness and sacrifice, national cemeteries do something more; they inspire us to do great things, too.

Today, Americans from all backgrounds have opportunities to serve the Nation in ways previous generations couldn’t have imagined: as members of the Armed Forces, in industry, academia, the clergy, and at every level of government. We are free to pursue our dreams because someone before us served and sacrificed. Our national cemeteries, and the heroes they memorialize, ensure we don’t lose sight of that essential fact.


A career VA employee, Steve Muro was VA’s Acting Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs. He is also a Vietnam Veteran.

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Steve Muro

Comments

  1. Sara Friedman    

    Hello,

    The diversity of the Armed Services has always been historically ahead of the country. These heroes of America deserve recongnition all throughout the year not just in Black History Month. I have been contacted about diversity issues in the military, but when I look at our ranks I see diversity up and down the ranks. We are all grateful for the diversity of all races that serve our country.

  2. Brenda Hayes    

    Alex,

    I reposted this; not sure why it disappeared as there was no explanation.
    It was originally posted on 2/9.
    *****************************************************************************

    Steve,

    Thanks for your article. I do hope I won’t have to use these VA services anytime soon. And by the time I do need them, I will probably have run out of steam even if things weren’t “right”!! LOL

    Below is an article, I thought you and others might find interesting and very touching.

    I only wish we could do this more for our invisible Veterans. I can only applaud those who took collegial responsibility which shows the true brotherhood of Veterans.

    It was sad about the Veteran’s death and how lonely he must have been in his last 20 years or so. But what truly made me cry was to see how one or two people can make a difference; and how that can kindness can multiply especially when it concerns a fallen brother; no matter who he was, where he lived, how he lived…he was part of the Veteran Family.

    I like what was said, “…he was a hero because he said YES to his country.”

    I can only pray and hope that these men and their acts of kindness and brotherhood continues to multiple so that no Veteran will leave this earth without an honorable and much deserved last benefit; a proper burial surrounded by his Veteran family; if no others.

    I wish more Veteran organizations would reach out and find these “forgotten” poor souls. I also wish that when the VA does outreach and finds these homeless Vets that they do get their ID’s and somehow work with putting together a registry of homeless Veterans.

    Because if and when they do succumb, for whatever reasons, that we know who they are; if there are any living relatives; and if not, make sure a Veteran Service Organization Coalition and the Patriot’s Guard will repeat the same for them as what was done for this old World War 11 Veteran.

    Not sure; but my father’s younger brother was a Korean War Veteran and I was grateful that he had a military funeral and was buried in the Veteran’s Cemetery near Fredericksburg, VA. Like so many Vets; he did not speak of his traumas;and,like many Vets took to self-medicating and had a difficult life.

    It was a simple funeral with taps played and the flag presented. I kept thinking how proud he would have been. His family was there, especially a step son he helped raised. This young man went on to be a mechanic in the Air Force who took care of Blue Angels planes. My uncle did the best he could for the cards he was dealt and never got helped for.

    The grounds of the Cemetery was lovely; and I imagine they are only more beautiful since many years have passed.

    I wish that the Department of Veterans Affairs of all the States would hold periodic workshops for those caretakers who are dealing with so much and to include those services of your office.

    Again, thanks for your Service and working for the final benefit of our Veterans and their family members.

    Appreciatively,

    B.H.
    Vetwife Advocate

    ************************************************************************************************************************************************************
    An to Don Terry, Journalist, who has, for more than a quarter century, Don Terry has written about the era’s defining political and social issues.

    This is the definition of service & support of veterans..one veteran at a time
    There but for the grace of God, go you and I.
    Joining to Bid Farewell to an Almost Unknown Soldier
    http://www.chicagonewscoop.org/joi ning-to-bid-farewell-to-an-almost-unknown-soldier-2/ pictures
    http://www.chicagonewscoop.org/joining-to-bid-farewell-to-an-almost-unknown-soldier/
    By DON TERRY
    February 5, 2011

    A retired hospital chaplain, Ray Deabel speaks at 80 or so funerals a year, many for fellow military veterans. That is an honor. But sometimes only a handful of mourners show up. That is a shame. At the service for one World War II veteran a few years ago, only the chaplain and the funeral home director were there to say thank you and goodbye.

    A member of the Patriot Guard Riders salutes as homeless Army Veteran Harold Lewis arrives at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood.
    John Konstantaras/Chicago News Cooperative

    “I’ve seen some lonely and sad situations,” Mr. Deabel said.

    The Jan. 28 service for a nearly destitute old soldier named Harold Lewis was not one of them. A village of veter ans made sure of that.

    As the sound of taps and the crackle of rifle fire drifted through the barren trees and over the snow-covered grounds of the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery near Joliet, more than 35 veterans stood at attention and saluted Mr. Lewis’s flag-draped coffin. Most of them had not heard of Mr. Lewis until 24 hours before his Friday morning funeral with military honors.

    “We bury nothing but heroes out here,” Mr. Deabel told the gathering. “They’re all heroes because they said yes to their country.”

    Mr. Lewis, 79, an Army veteran of the Korean War era, died, apparently by his own hand, on Dec. 17 in his cell-size room in a dreary men’s hotel on South Clark Street. He had lived there for the last 20 years. For most of that time, according to the hotel mana ger, Michael Bush, Mr. Lewis kept mostly to himself.

    “He liked to read and watch old movies,” Mr. Bush said. “He loved John Wayne.”

    Over the years, Mr. Lewis had few, if any, visitors except for a small group of veterans, led by a former Marine, Jim Proffitt, 61, and Jack Picciolo, 67, who served with an Army artillery unit in Vietnam.

    Every Sunday, they delivered sandwiches to Mr. Lewis and other struggling residents of the hotel. It is part of the veterans’ regular route as they drive through downtown distributing food and clothing to the homeless.

    Mr. Lewis rarely left his room. The veterans would deliver sandwiches to his door, which Mr. Lewis cracked open to take the food and exchange a few words.

    Mr. Proffitt was delivering sandwiches to the hotel on Dec. 19 when he learned that Mr. Lewis had died two days earlier. Mr. Proffitt notified the Cook County medical examiner’s office that night that he and his friends would make sure their fellow veteran had a dignified burial, if Mr. Lewis had no next of kin.

    “He might have been down and out, but he’s one of us,” Mr. Proffitt said. “He’s a veteran.”

    Mr. Lewis’s body lay in the morgue for a month as medical examiner employees searched for relatives. They found no one and called Mr. Proffitt, who called Mr. Picciolo, who called Ed Tylka, a member of Mr. Picciolo’s Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Lockport and the director of the Ridge Funeral Home in Chicago.

    Mr. Tylka picked up Mr . Lewis’s body and donated a coffin. Mr. Picciolo supplied dress slacks, a white shirt and a sport coat for Mr. Lewis to wear. The jacket was too big. “He only weighed something like 80 pounds,” Mr. Picciolo said. The funeral home supplied a jacket that fit, along with socks and underwear. The Veterans Administration paid for the burial plot.

    Last Friday morning, five cars followed the hearse for the hourlong journey to the cemetery. When the procession arrived, more than 25 cars were waiting. News of the final salute had spread through the veterans community by word of mouth and an article in The Southtown Star.

    “When we pulled in there, I couldn’t believe all of those cars,” Mr. Picciolo said. “We thought it would just be me, Jim and maybe a couple of other guys.”

    Waiting to say goodbye to Mr. Lewis were members of the American Legion, the Marine Corps League, the Patriot Guard Riders, a couple of V.F.W. posts and the Friday unit of the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery Memorial Squad, volunteers who conduct military honors.

    Friday is the busiest day at Lincoln. Last year, said the assistant squad leader, Mike Mahoney, 64, a Navy veteran, the Friday squad conducted 670 funerals, mostly for World War II and Korean War veterans.

    A squad member, Bob Moore, 77, an Army veteran, presented the American flag that had draped Mr. Lewis’s coffin to Mr. Proffitt and repeated words he had spoken hundreds of times:

    “On behalf of a great and grateful nation, the president of the United States, and the armed forces, it is an honor to present you this flag, for the honorable service your loved one provided his country.”

    As the mourners began to leave, a volley of 21 shots echoed in the distance.

    colonel-dan@sbcglobal.net
    Subject: Homeless Vet Funeral
    http://www.chicagonewscoop.org

    Story on homeless vet buried at A braham Lincoln

    __._,_.___

    “Keep on, Keepin’ on”
    Dan Cedusky, Champaign IL “Colonel Dan”
    See my web site at:
    http://www.angelfire.com/il2/VeteranIssues/

    Change your email address when needed by signing in at
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/VeteranIssues/

    Forward to other veterans, tell them to Sign up at:
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/VeteranIssues/join

    __,_._,___

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