By David Rogers, Adjutant
American Legion, Post 16
We have left too many people behind in war-torn areas overseas to have it happen on American soil. Right? But it has happened in our sleepy little town in Colorado, and I’m sure it’s happening elsewhere in the United States.
In early August 2017, our county Veterans Service Officer (VSO) called us. We are American Legion Post 16 in Walsenburg. We happen to be the only Veterans Service Organization in the county of about 6,000 people. The VSO stated that he had knowledge of a veteran who had passed away almost 2 years ago and had not been buried. What? 2 years ago? Not buried? What is going on here?
We met with the VSO, who told us that U.S. Navy veteran Jerry Lee Wood had died on Dec. 17, 2015. The VSO had received a call from the mortuary in Canon City, Colo., inquiring what the “VA” wanted to do with the cremains. That is when Post 16 stepped in.
To regress a little, Jerry Lee Wood was born in Martinsville, Ind., on July 13, 1948. Somewhere during that time, he and his family moved to Orlando, where he joined the Navy on Jan. 19, 1968, right when the Vietnam War was raging in Southeast Asia. He was assigned to the destroyer USS Brownson (DD868) as a fireman (E3) in the electrical department. At the time of his enlistment he was 19. Upon his release from active duty, he was transferred to the Naval Reserve and assigned to Naval Station Charleston, S.C. He received the National Defense Service Medal during his time in service. He left active reserve duty in January 1974, completing his 6 years of service. During this time, Jerry started working for the Florida Corrections Department, which he subsequently retired from. He then moved to Walsenburg to be with his parents. He died peacefully in his home, apparently from a heart attack, at 67.
After contacting Commander Gary Baldwin and other members of Post 16, we decided that this was a situation that warranted our attention. Brian Chiquette (Sr. Vice Commander for Post 16), David Rogers (Adjutant) and Cheryl Rogers (President of American Legion Auxiliary Unit 16) as well as Terry Wood, the deceased’s brother, met with the VSO shortly after hearing about FN Wood being held at the mortuary since 2015. Nick Vigil, the VSO, stated that the mortuary had called and told him that FN Wood was left at the mortuary shortly after his death in 2015 with orders for a cremation of the body by his common-law wife Carol Brown. Nothing unusual here, I thought. However as the story progressed, we learned that Carol Brown had refused to pick up the cremains for a proper burial and had refused to let other family members have control. Why would this happen, I thought? A wife deposits her husband for cremation after death and then doesn't complete the burial ceremony? It didn’t make sense to me or any of the other American Legion members as we tried to sort this out.
According to Colorado probate law, the person assigned as the deceased's “personal representative” (previously called an executor in most states) is the only person who can place the deceased into the mortuary and determine final results. So shortly after FN Wood’s death he was placed into Boies-Ortega Mortuary in Walsenburg to be cremated. After cremation, the personal representative could not or would not pick up the cremains, so there Jerry Wood sat, in a repository at the mortuary. No one could access the cremains except the personal representative. Not his brother, not his son, not The American Legion. The mortuary, citing possible legal penalties, would not release the cremains of a United States veteran to have a proper ceremony and military burial without that signature. There was also the issue of cost. The fee for the cremation was $1,799. After some discussion the fee was reduced to $500. We, American Legion Post 16, said we would gladly pay that amount.
The only way the Legion could get custody of Mr. Wood was to have the designated personal representative, in this case his wife Carol Brown, sign a notarized release to allow the Legion to claim the cremains. It should be noted that Mr. Wood’s mother and father are buried in a family plot at the La Veta Cemetery in La Veta, Colo. According to the brother, Terry Wood, his wishes were to be buried in the La Veta Cemetery next to his mother and father instead of in a national cemetery.
The hunt was on. Where could we locate Carol Brown and have her sign a notarized release? We searched the city high and low. Walsenburg is not a big town, with the population being about 3,000 people. Someone has to know where she might be. We checked her previously listed addresses in the county and the city. We sent certified letters to her in hopes someone would pass at least one of them along. The VSO contacted other Veterans who might know of her whereabouts. Several weeks later, tips started coming in. She was finally located. She was homeless, living in her truck, either at friends' houses or along the roadway where available. She had a sporadic part-time job cleaning horse stables for a disabled veteran living at a local campground. Different members of our team approached her to ask about signing the release and the reaction was something that I totally did not expect. She cursed each person, told us that she “didn’t care,” “didn’t want any part of this” and to “leave her alone”. In my 22 years in the U.S. Navy, I’ve been cursed at in lots of bars. This one took me by surprise and was totally unexpected. Maybe their relationship was not the best? Anyway, we decided to stop all contact due to the possibility of harassment on our part.
The next weekend, the Spanish Peaks Veteran’s Community Living Center in Walsenburg was having a fundraiser motorcycle event called “Rolling for Freedom.” It attracts both veteran and non-veteran motorcyclists from all over Southern Colorado. This day there were about 220 motorcyclists in attendance. As we started to explain the situation (we were going to ask for donations from the crowd) a man from a veteran’s motorcycle club in Peyton, Colo., stood up and said, “I’ll pay for it, whatever the amount I’ll pay it.” We were shocked! We talked to this man, Eddie Blaylock, afterwards and he stated he was not a veteran, but just needed to pay this forward. He said the veterans in his motorcycle club let him ride with them and he is fortunate and grateful for that. We graciously accepted his donation.
We re-grouped and tried to decide what to do next. Eating lunch in a small restaurant in town, I looked up on the wall. There was a small sign with a quote from a famous baseball player, Tommy Lasorda. He said, “The difference between the possible and the impossible lies in a person’s determination.” It was at that point I knew we were doing the right thing and we had to find a way to get Jerry Wood and have a military ceremony. We contacted the Huerfano County Court for any information we could find. Fortunately for us, the probate case that was filed upon Mr. Wood’s death was not closed. Additionally, the clerk pointed us to a free visit with an attorney via Skype at the public Library that was upcoming in the next day or two.
On the appointed day, myself, Vice Commander Brian Chiquette and Auxiliary President Cheryl Rogers were at the library early to sign up for the visit with the lawyer. We were directed to a private room where an attorney was available via Skype. He introduced himself as Rick Morgan. Unbeknownst to us, Mr. Morgan is a VSO and very current on veterans affairs, as well as an attorney. We pled our case and told him we didn’t know what to do next. Mr. Morgan, after giving us his office phone number, told us to file a “Motion to Petition the Court” under the open probate case to petition the court for custody of the cremains of FN Wood, and to call him if there were any problems or we needed further assistance. We thanked him profusely and left with a re-energized sense and a feeling that the light at the end of the tunnel is not a train after all!
The next day, we filed in Huerfano County Court the motion, stating the reasons for the request, including the 22 months that Mr. Wood had remained in the repository at the mortuary and the actions of the wife. The court immediately granted the motion without a hearing. We received the court order the next day and were elated.
Working with the mortuary in Canon City, we were able to pick up Mr. Woods’ cremains, paying the $500 fee requested by them. We draped a small United States flag over the box and respectfully placed it in my vehicle for the ride to my house, where it would remain until the services. Notification was made to all interested parties that we were in possession of FN Woods’ cremains and that the service would be held on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017 (the day after the Navy birthday). Needless to say we were all relieved, and Jerry’s brother Terry cried when we told him the news.
Now the scheduling starts. Where to gather all the people that were interested and said they would come to the funeral? We called the Community Center; nope, booked for that day. Finally we checked with the United Methodist Church in La Veta. They would graciously accept us and Pastor Janine Rose offered to do the ceremony. We started gathering all the necessities for a pancake breakfast from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., then arrange for the Town Marshal to give us an escort to the La Veta Cemetery, about ½ mile away. Things were coming together! We called the Navy for their funeral services and was accepted. Got the Veterans Service Officer going on the grave plaque, check. Called Terry (the brother) and got some information from him for the eulogy; things were falling into place.
Oct. 14 had arrived. We got up early, went to the church to get the coffee and other preliminary things going. Slowly people started showing up. Jack Rudder from Alamosa stopped in. He is the VSO as well as an American Legion member from Alamosa County. He wanted information from us on how we accomplished this, as he has six veterans in the same condition in Alamosa County. I figured we were hitting the tip of the iceberg, we were right! The monetary donor, Eddie Blaylock, arrived and we again thanked him and gave him a plague from the post saying “Thank You! We may not know them all, but we owe them all.” There was not a dry eye in the house. Colorado State Senator Larry Crowder (Colorado Senate District 35) arrived as well as Colorado State Representative Donald Valdez (District 62, La Jara). Huerfano County Commissioner Gerald Cisneros was also there as well as about 40 other interested people. We left in a procession for the La Veta Cemetery, which was about ½ mile away.
The United States Navy had sent a color guard and Jack Rudder provided the Bugle and the Ceremonial Flags. Despite the wind, the ceremony kicked off extremely well. The family was impressed and thankful of the military funeral. Pastor Janine Rose gave a beautiful sermon and eulogy (this being her first military service). Taps was, as always, a tearful experience. As a bonus, both of the Active Duty Honor Guard were Boatswain’s Mates (a Navy Deck Rating) and brought their Bosun’s Pipes. The departed (Jerry Wood) was piped aboard to his next duty station in the sky. It was great!
After the ceremony, everyone disbursed and we at Post 16 had mixed emotions. We were extremely satisfied that the service went exceptionally well. We were happy that we were able to pool our resources, our knowledge and experience to get the desired result, but at the same time were disheartened to learn of the six more veterans in Otero County in the same situation. Not only that, how many more in Colorado, or the United States for that matter are in the same situation?
There is a Colorado law (C.R.S. 15-19-106(4)(b)II) which states, in part: Any member or veteran of the armed forces of the United States or of an organization supporting members or veterans of the United States shall have right to access the human remains and records thereof in order to identify the remains if no person with the right of final disposition has provided for final disposition for at least 180 days after death. If the remains are those of a veteran of the armed forces of the United States the person who possesses the remains shall make arrangements for the remains to be transferred to the closest United States military cemetery.
I don’t think many mortuaries in Colorado know about this law. The one in Canon City did not.
I am truly surprised at the notion that our military veterans can be sent to a mortuary and not claimed. The United States and other organizations are still looking for missing servicemen lost in battle overseas, and we have a cache of them here in the United States in a repository in a local mortuary. This is wrong, and we as The American Legion need to locate and properly bury these men and women with dignity and honor.