Upon the request of a deceased veteran’s family, U.S. law requires every eligible veteran who served honorably to receive a military funeral ceremony that includes the presentation of a folded burial flag, a rifle salute, and the playing of “Taps.”

Photo Credit: PHOTO COURTESY: POST #1324 - From left, Bill Trumble leads fellow Three Rivers VFW members Chuck Chamberlin, Neil Alexander, Steve Prowant and DJ Ruger in presenting arms during the monthly memorial service at Willamette National Cemetery.  But what if a veteran dies homeless or without any surviving family members?

When Senior Vice Cmdr. Bill Trumble and his group at the Three Rivers Veterans of Foreign Wars Post #1324 heard that funding was cut for the Oregon National Guard’s program giving full military honors at the funerals of homeless veterans, he immediately went to the Willamette National Cemetery in Happy Valley and offered services for the monthly memorial.

Burial services for veterans who don’t have a next-of-kin seeking full military honors are technically called “unescorted.” George Allen, Willamette National Cemetery director, said he appreciated that the VFW post stepped in to honor such veterans.

“It all aligns with our mission to make sure that no veteran goes unrecognized,” Allen said.

Nationwide, a 44 percent cut to the Army National Guard’s Military Funeral Honors program resulted in a $21 million shortfall. In a policy known as sequestration, automatic across-the-board funding cuts began taking effect in 2011 when congressional and White House officials couldn’t agree on a plan to reduce the U.S. deficit.

Although there’s been a 33 percent decrease in the number of homeless veterans since 2010, about 50,000 were found on the streets during the January 2014 Point-in-Time Count. Between 25 and 30 Oregon veterans are honored each month at Willamette National Cemetery’s monthly memorial service. The ceremonies are usually held on the fourth Thursday of the month.

“It’s an honor for us to be able to step in for the active military personnel who can no longer perform this service due to budget cuts,” Trumble said.

“For Whom the Bell Tolls” is another name for the monthly memorial service, the first program in the United States to honor veterans who died with no surviving family members. The program gets its alternate name because a ship’s bell is rung for every veteran’s name read aloud. A chaplain opens and closes the ceremony with a prayer. More than 7,000 veterans have been honored since the Willamette National Cemetery program started in the early 1990s, soon after the first Iraq war.

Previously, every time an indigent veteran died at the U.S. Veteran Administration’s Hospital in Portland, a chaplain had to be called in for a special service. If someone dies on the street, the county medical examiner is called to identify the body. In cases where the indigent death involved a veteran, a rotating roster of funeral homes donated their services. Willamette National Cemetery added indigent veterans early on in the process of instituting the monthly memorial service.

Meanwhile, VFW’s national commander last week criticized the “Pentagon’s mantra to slow the growth in pay and benefits by proposing a mere 1.3-percent pay raise,” to further reduce housing allowances, and to create higher out-of-pocket health care costs for active-duty military families and retirees of all ages. As mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011, cutting almost $1 trillion from the Pentagon’s budget, VFW National Cmdr. John W. Stroud argued, could eliminate quality-of-life programs for military personnel and their families, and tremendously impact readiness and modernization programs, to the point of jeopardizing the military’s ability to respond when and where needed. 

Happy birthday!

What: The public is invited to the 90th birthday party for the Three Rivers Veterans of Foreign Wars Post #1324 serving Oregon City, West Linn and Gladstone.

When: 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 17. Ceremony will be held at 6 p.m. with cake and refreshments served afterward

Where: 104 Tumwater Drive, Oregon City. 

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