Lemont VFW member donates time to give proper burial to ‘comrades-in-arms’
LEMONT — Every three months at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, at least 60 names are read, a bell is rung, bag pipes sound and a moment of silence is had to honor recently buried homeless veterans of United State Armed Forces.
For Gary Paul, a member of Lemont VFW Post 5819, the services are a chance to volunteer time for his “comrades-in-arms."
“It’s haunting,” said Paul, a resident of Romeoville but a familiar face at the Lemont VFW. “Every quarter they have a service for these men who are dropped off and have no family. They give them a service."
As part of the cemetery's Memorial Squad, Paul and fellow volunteers, dressed in their “dress blues” formal wear, play Taps, conduct a 21-shot salute and fold the American flag and present it to a family member of the veteran, if he/she is in attendance.
The service is offered free of charge to veterans with an honorable discharge.
“It’s a really moving ceremony,” Paul said. “At times it can be emotional. ... It’s an honor I think for every one of us to be able to do that. I guess it’s like paying it forward for me.”
Paul, who also gives much of his time volunteering at the Lemont VFW serving lunches to disabled veterans or visiting veterans at the Hines VA Hospital in Maywood, first heard of the cemetery and its services through the Lemont VFW Post.
The cemetery sends bulletins to local posts to notify other veterans of the homeless burial service to try and get others to attend and honor the deceased.
Shortly after joining the Lemont VFW about two years ago, Paul decided to take the trip to the Elwood cemetery with other members of the post and attend one of the services. He has been volunteering ever since.
“Not until you get out there do you realize to what degree it becomes part of you,” Paul said. “It’s not something you do, it actually becomes a part of who you are."
Every year, the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery will bury at least 3,000 veterans. At least 240 of those veterans are homeless, according to the cemetery director. The cemetery has 400,000 grave sites and has buried 32,000 veterans.
“When you look at the headstones, you know freedom is not free,” Paul said. “Every one of those men and women at Abraham Lincoln honored their country by putting their life on the line.”
Paul spoke proudly of his Lemont VFW branch, where he said he and fellow veterans band together for a common goal.
“We are all trying to cover each other’s back as best we can; it’s an organization that will help provide benefits (veterans) will need down the road,” Paul said of the VFW.
“We are all comrades-in-arms so if I can make one point, these people that are in Iraq and Afghanistan, they need to get involved with VFW groups,” Paul said. “The stronger we are as a group, the more lobbying power we have. They are cutting our benefits every day. If they don’t step up we are in trouble.”
Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery
Where: 20953 W. Hoff Road in Elwood
Number of acres: 982
Annual burials: 3,000 annually
Number of vets buried at the cemetery: More than 32,000
Number of grave sites: 400,000
Established: Oct. 5, 1999
Hours: 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday
Volunteers: Veterans and non-veterans welcome
Want to volunteer: Contact the administration office at 815-423-9958
Did you know? Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery is the second largest national cemetery in acreage.
Source: Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery
If you have any technical difficulties, either with your username and password or with the payment options, please contact us by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org