JACKSON – Members of the military past and present have a philosophy of never leaving a comrade behind, even in death. Members of several veteran service organizations, under the Mission of Honor program, made sure that didn’t happen recently with the group’s 30th committal ceremony which saw the burial of nine veterans.
Jackson American Legion member Barry J. Kakos explained the purpose of the Mission of Honor prior to the ceremony held at the George S. Hassler Funeral Home. It involves deceased veterans who have been cremated and whose remains have not been claimed by their family.
“By state law the funeral homes can not dispose of the cremains and must keep them. We seek out their information with the cooperation of the funeral directors to verify their military service and contact the family with a registered letter. If they do not respond we are able to take custody of the them and can arrange a proper burial for them in a military cemetery,” Kakos said.
Nine veterans were honored and found closure through the cooperation several funeral home leaders. They were George S. Hassler, who owns the township-based funeral home and his son, Brian T. Hassler, who manages it, along with the directors of the M. David Demarco Funeral Home in Monroe Township and the Dubois Funeral Home, Audubon, the.
Five of the veterans were Jackson residents. They included Lawrence H. Bishop, an Army World War II veteran whose remains were abandoned 35 years ago. George Council, an Air Force veteran who served in the Korean War, whose remains were abandoned a decade ago, Leo W. Feltman, an Army veteran who served in World War II, whose remains were abandoned 35 years ago. John T. Swanton also served in the Army and fought in World War II. His remains were abandoned 31 years ago. Harold A. Nagely, a Navy veteran also served in World War II. His remains were abandoned 29 years ago.
Also buried were Donald MacGuigan who served in peacetime in the Army and whose remains were abandoned 13 years ago. Army veteran Merritt T. Green also served in World War II while Winfred J Wiest served in the Army and fought in World War I. Clyde E. Reeves was a Navy veteran who served in World War II. Each of their remains had been abandoned more than 30 years ago.
“Our objective is to find them and them a proper funeral with military honors,” Kakos said. He added that the group is trying to bring more awareness of the group’s work to funeral home directors across the state
Following the ceremony, which was attended by members of the Jackson American Legion Post 504, the Marine Corps League, Rolling Thunder, Ocean County Freeholder Director Gerry P. Little and other dignitaries, the remains were transported for an interment ceremony at the Brigadier General William C. Doyle Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Wrightstown, Burlington County.
There were more than 30 motorcycles from the Legion Riders and Rolling Thunder, over 40 privately owned vehicles and a police escort non-stop from Hassler to the Brigadier Doyle Veteran Cemetery with Jackson. Plumsted and State Police blocked over 20 intersections.
Jackson Post 504 American Legion Commander Dave Whelan said, “I was gratified by the overall response, especially from the Jackson American Legion Post, which had 12 members attend and we were glad that the post was able to represent the Legion here in Jackson. The addition of students from Saint Aloysius School was terrific as they lined the sidewalk along Bennetts Mills Road waving flags as the motorcade passed. This sends a positive message to our young children.”
Kakos, who serves as the local post’s finance officer and membership director, added that “it’s been 46 years since I fired my weapon in my military days in the US Army. I was proud to be able to join other Jackson Legion members and conduct the 21-gun salute outside of the Hassler Funeral Home at the conclusion of the service and to be part of the Legion honor guard as the cremains of the nine veterans were honorably escorted out of the funeral home and placed into the Hassler hearse was also a rewarding and moving experience for me.”
Francis “Fran” Carrasco, the New Jersey Mission of Honor chairman, said he became involved with the program in 2009 when it formed. “There are around 600 shelves (holding unclaimed cremains) in the state. We’ve been in touch with first, second and even third generation family members, some of whom didn’t know that they had lost relatives. We’ve had ceremonies involving veterans of the Spanish American War whose remains were on a shelf for 68 years,” Carrasco said.
“This gives the deceased and the families some closure. We have some relatives crying and saying they couldn’t believe we were able to find them. Sometimes it’s hard as we don’t always have their social security number or their discharge papers. It takes a lot of detective work. Sometimes it can take to as much as six months and sometimes a year as we are all made up of volunteers,” Carrasco said.
Mission of Honor works not only with funeral directors but also with the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs who assist them in identifying the orphaned and abandoned veteran cremains. The cremains are buried in mahogany urns which are paid for by Mission of Honor.
Carrasco said that Gov. Jon Corzine passed a bill that allowed funeral directors to communicate with the MOH. “Rather than to have various veterans groups like the American Legion and the VFW do this, it is done under one liaison which is the MOH. The government spends millions of dollars to give veterans their final rest and bring them home from foreign countries but we need to do this right here in the U.S. We do it for those in New Jersey. We are a 501(c) organization. I have put almost $10,000 into the project myself. I was originally the vice president and ran the north Jersey region while Judy (Judith A. Kapp) handles the southern end of the state.”
“We have a big job. This is our 30th ceremony. The largest we had was 25 veterans at one time in a North Bergen funeral home,” Carrasco said.
“My late husband Kenneth was a Marine veteran. I was already a member of several veterans organizations when I became aware of MOH. I went to a meeting and when they asked for volunteers I raised my hand. I previously worked in human resources at the Naval Lakehurst base before it became part of the Joint Base. That work experience has helped me with my work here. The veterans of this organization are like a family and these abandoned veterans are part of our family. This is very rewarding,” Kapp of Bayville said.
Brian Hassler said he became aware of MOH eight years ago during a presentation made before the Monmouth-Ocean County Funeral Directors Association. “Judy did a lot of work to make it happen. A lot of funeral homes have these cremains.”
His father, George Hassler, added that he was also a veteran and that “I remember seeing a C-130 plane and family members there awaiting the return of their loved ones who had died, on the tarmac. It was very sad to see. We were very happy to do what we could to help with this.”
Arty Mattei works for the Hassler Funeral Home and is a member of the Forked River branch of Rolling Thunder. He prepared the necessary paperwork for the burial ceremony including the registered letters to family members. “Judy coordinated with Arneytown (Brig. Gen. Doyle cemetery). I have three kids in the military and this pulls at my heartstrings.”
Jackson Council President Kenneth Bressi was present for the ceremony at the Hassler Funeral home in his role as a member of the Marine Corps League. “This is a wonderful program. There are no words to describe it but it is a very good project.”
For information about the Mission of Honor and how you can donate or become a volunteer, njsmissionofhonor.org.