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Ceremony to honor 'Unforgotten' veterans draws hundreds in Bremerton
As the final notes of "Taps" resonated into a solemn silence, salutes were offered by a crowd that numbered in the hundreds. A folded American flag was then presented in honor of five fallen veterans Saturday at the Kitsap County Cornor's Office.
The ceremony, “The Unforgotten, Run to Tahoma III,” was held to honor veterans whose remains have been unclaimed at the county following their cremation.
The four unclaimed veterans were John Thomas Johnson of Port Orchard, Air Force; Pamela Leona Davis of Bremerton, Army; James Allen Lewis Jr. of Bremerton, Army; and Joseph Dahringer McKnight of Bremerton, Air Force. Another veteran, Joseph Gary Garibaldi of Bremerton, a Navy veteran, was included in the ceremony at his family's request.
Following an hour-long ceremony, the flag and the five veterans were carried to Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent, Wash. by an entourage escorted of hundreds of motorcycles.
The ceremony included a musical prelude and a call to the Sacred Circle, the playing of the "Star Spangled Banner," a flyover by a VP-40 aircraft, a eulogy by Mark Lowe, chair of the Kitsap County Veterans Advisory Board, a blessing and a presentation and retrieval of the colors by a U.S. Marine Color Guard among other ceremonial events.
Lowe spoke of the sacrifice made by the veterans being honored at the ceremony. He spoke of the extended family that the veteran community comprises and of his own father who had served America during World War II. Lowe said that he did not understand his father's sacrifice until he himself had become a veteran. Lowe also spoke of his son who had expressed his respect for the nation's veterans by writing a poem saluting the bravery and honor of military personnel who have served and continue to serve the nation.
Standing before the crowd, his voice thick with emotion, Lowe spoke of the unbreakable bond that brought hundreds of attendees to gather in honor of people they did not know as individuals.
"If you died tomorrow would you be remembered? Would family and friends gather to say goodbye to you? Or, would you be placed on a shelf to be forgotten for years, always overlooked until someday someone got tired of moving your box around and sent you to a common grave to be forgotten?" Lowe asked. "This is why we are here today. To let these brothers and sisters know that their brothers and sisters stand together today. Airmen, guardsmen, marines, sailors and soldiers all gathered to say, 'You are not forgotten.' "
Lowe added that the bond should be honored in death and also honored in life, he said honoring and helping veterans should be every citizen's duty in the same way veterans had made it their duty to serve America.
"I ask you to look around and ask who is a veteran? And then ask yourself how can I help a veteran in need? Make it your calling to help them."
The ceremony concluded with bugler Kent Larabee, a Navy veteran, playing the 24 notes of taps as the flag was presented and a final closing of the ceremony before the veterans' remains were escorted to Kent.
The commemoration was sponsored and arranged by multiple veteran and non-veteran groups including the Kitsap County Veterans Advisory Board, the Kitsap County Board of Commissioners and Chapter Five of Combat Veterans International.
Leif Bentsen, coordinator of Kitsap County's Veterans Assistance Program, said the service began in 2008 when his office called the Kitsap County Coroner’s Office to seek remains of veterans that might have been unclaimed.
Bentsen said the call was in response to a growing national concern for the unclaimed remains veterans.
“Often the estate does not have enough money to bury the person or there are no relatives found,” Bentsen said.
At that time, Bentsen said the remains of seven veterans were being held by the office and a ceremony was held and interment arranged.
Bentsen said that in 2011, the unclaimed remains of other veterans prompted another ceremony and at that time it was decided to hold an annual ceremony for such veterans so that they were not forgotten by their comrades.
Bentsen said it was important for veterans and veterans groups to step up and take accountability for their fellows. He said the ceremony was held in honor of a bond among those who have served their country and those who continue to serve.
“No one really understands us better than we understand ourselves,” Bentsen said speaking of veterans. “This is probably true with any occupation where you go through something that has drama or stress to it. You bond.”
Bentsen said it is that bond that is the primary inspiration behind the ceremony.
Among the hundreds of veterans and veteran’s family members and active service members involved were those who would personally escort the remains.
Chantel “Baby Red” Chapman is a Navy veteran of 14 years who escorted the remains of the lone female veteran, Army veteran Pamela L. Davis, to Tahoma. Chapman said she felt pride at being offered the opportunity to act as an escort.
“It’s about honoring our veterans,” she said. “Being a vet myself, this means a great deal to me. It is just an honor to be here.”
She said she felt an additional honor to be able to escort the remains of a female veteran.
“There are women that are out there in combat and to be able to represent one of the females who did sacrifice for her country, it is a great honor to me.
Lt. Jeremiah Smith, who is the Casualty Assistance Calls Officer for the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, presented the flag at the ceremony. He said the gathering of so many to recognize those previously unknown to them was a great honor.
“These people served their country and we need to respect them for that,” Smith said.