Few people knew who Dick Winters was before a bestselling novel and subsequent HBO miniseries documenting the heroism of the former Army major and his “Band of Brothers” in the 101st Airborne Division aired in 2001. But after more than 10 million viewers tuned in to the series’ first installment, the virtual anonymity Mr. Winters had always known was gone.
On Jan. 2, Mr. Winters lost his life after a seven-year battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was just days shy of his 93rd birthday.
Having always done his best to keep his life as private as possible, Mr. Winters was buried with very little fanfare in his hometown of Hershey, Pa. It wasn’t until a day later, when his family, including his wife of 63 years, finally released the news of his death that the world again took notice of the war hero.
Less than 250 miles away on the same day Mr. Winters reached his final resting place, a very different type of military funeral took place in Calverton. A service at the national cemetery there was held for 20 veterans whose bodies were laid to rest in a much more public setting. But unlike Mr. Winters, the sacrifices these men made for their country never played out in your living room, their anonymity was never unmasked and their families never saw them lowered into the ground.
The men memorialized Saturday all had one thing in common, besides their military service: Their remains went unclaimed at New York City morgues, some for several years, until they were buried together in the largest interment of unclaimed remains at any veterans’ cemetery in the nation’s history.
Little is known about the veterans, many of whom saw their military records vanish along with those of 16 million others in a 1973 fire at the U.S. Military Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.
What was known of the men was that they served between the 1940s and 1970s and held ranks ranging from private first class and medical field service technician to master sergeant. And each of them died poor, alone and, according to reports, homeless. (Several officials at Saturday’s service refuted reports that the men were homeless, choosing instead to classify them as indigent.)
How each of these men came to be without family or belongings remains mystery so tangled even the most keen sleuth might have difficulty unraveling it. After all, your body doesn’t go unclaimed for more than three years, as was the case with one man, unless there’s nobody looking out for you.
But a funny thing happened in the days leading up to Saturday’s funeral, which was paid for by Dignity Memorial, a nationwide network of funeral homes.
The story of these 20 men, or whatever could be told of them, spread through the region’s veteran community. By the time their funeral took place Saturday morning, more than 200 people had made their way to the cemetery to pay their respects.
Suddenly, more people were there for them on their day of burial than most of us could even dream of.
One could only imagine that the men buried Saturday, whose names appear at the bottom of this column, led very different lives than did Major Dick Winters after their time in the service was over — just as they took very different paths to the ground following their deaths.
But if there’s one thing they all have in common with the late Mr. Winters, it’s the great respect they’re owed for having once put our nation’s uniforms on their backs. Let’s hope they find themselves spending eternity together alongside Mr. Winters in that special place where all our nation’s heroes ultimately end up.
The names of all 20 men buried in Calverton Saturday:
Barry Carl Brooks
Myron Sanford Mabry