Six Wisconsin veterans laid to rest, at last
SUPERIOR, Mich. — Six Douglas County veterans will be buried with honors Saturday at Greenwood Cemetery. Their cremated remains have been waiting at Superior funeral homes, some for more than 10 years. Courtesy of an outpouring of support from businesses and individuals, they will be laid to rest with their fellow veterans.
“It all started out with Michael,” said Joe Penney, the Superior man who launched the effort to bury the veterans. “Michael was my friend.” When the Vietnam combat veteran died 11 years ago, his cremated remains were never buried. Every time Penney went to a funeral, he checked on Michael. Then he learned his friend wasn’t the only veteran waiting. He located five more — two who served in World War II, two from the Korean War and another Vietnam veteran — at Superior funeral homes.
They either had no close family left alive or their families had been short of funds to bury them, Penney said. He brought the problem to the attention of the county.
“It never occurred to me we would have unclaimed veterans literally on the shelf at funeral homes,” said Scott Buchanan, Douglas County veterans service officer. He offered to arrange burial of the remains at Northern Wisconsin Veterans Memorial Cemetery near Spooner.
“Joe wanted them local,” Buchanan said. “‘They’re local guys,’ he said.”
And he was determined to give them all a final resting place.
“I’m not leaving anybody behind on this,” Penney said.
Douglas County currently has 916 plots available for veterans at Greenwood, according to Terri Hammerbeck, office administrator for Greenwood Cemetery. They are provided at no cost to veterans who request one. Free markers are provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Urns were donated by an urn company. Greenwood waived the $110 fee to set each marker, according to cemetery bookkeeper Steve Leino. But there was still a $360 opening and closing fee to be paid for each veteran.
Penney took his cause to the community. He set up a number of change jars in local businesses, then he started walking.
“I went door to door from one end of this town to another,” Penney said.
The response was overwhelming — 125 businesses and individuals donated to the cause.
“These people all came together for veterans in Superior,” Penney said. “I’ve never seen this many businesses get together on anything in my life.”
Many had similar reasons for giving. Avis Phelps’ father was a veteran in World War II.
“I just feel like they should be honored,” said Phelps, the owner of A&W Family Restaurant.
“It’s just the right thing to do,” said Klaus Nieder, president and owner of Bear Shoe Works. “It’s our way of saying thanks.”
Renee Kern with the Michael “Rex” Kern Memorial learned about the donation drive at Moon’s Auto Body.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” she said. Every year, the family provides funds for local needs — shingles for a veteran’s roof, coats for children, Circle of Hope and other causes. They were quick to support the veterans once they found out what was going on.
“I’m glad these guys are getting buried,” Kern said. “They are getting what they deserve.”
Craig Johnson, one of the owners of Four Star Construction Inc. agreed it was a noble cause. He, like many of those who donated, was surprised to learn there were veterans who hadn’t been interred.
“It’s a great cause, to get a vet peacefully settled in a marked grave,” said Frank Gerard, president of Campbell Lumber. He said the dedication Penney had to the cause was another reason the business donated.
“He had the vision to do this and the passion to get it done,” Gerard said. “It was really touching to see there was someone out there getting these guys to rest in peace.”
Penney raised a total of $4,720, more than was needed to bury the six veterans. The rest of the funds were used to create pre-paid accounts at Greenwood for future veteran burials, should similar circumstances arise.
Cremation is considered final disposition as far as the state is concerned, according to Darrell Witt, Douglas County medical examiner. Families can do whatever they want with the ashes as long as they follow local laws. A local funeral home director said there’s no law stating cremains have to be buried. Disposal of the remains is up to the families.
Penney said he wanted to recognize the businesses and individuals for their part in laying these veterans to rest. He invited them and other community members to the ceremony at 1 p.m. Saturday at Greenwood. The Richard I. Bong American Legion Post 435 Honor Guard will provide military honors for the event. The Patriot Guard plans to make a showing. Northland Vietnam Veterans and MACV will also pay their respects. Markers for the graves have not been received yet, according to staff at Greenwood. They will be placed in the spring prior to Memorial Day.