RIVERSIDE — The final measure of respect you can pay a veteran, even unclaimed souls, is to bury him with the most appropriate and professional military honors as his family bears witness. Until 1996, that was not always the case in California.
In 1996 when the military was drawing down troops and closing bases there were not enough active duty folks available to properly bury our men and women with full military honors, said Retired Master Gunnery Sgt. Daniel “Gunnie” Smith lll. “Therefore a lot of veterans all around the nation, not just us, but particularly in California, were being buried without any honors whatsoever. That was deemed totally unacceptable. That’s how we came into existence in 1996. Memorial Honor Detail was formed.”
Smith, 75, a decorated U.S. Marine, has just been re-elected to his 15th term as chairman of the Memorial Honor Detail (MHD) at Riverside National Cemetery.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a job to me,” Smith told Uken Report. “It’s a passion.”
MHD performs 6,935 full military honor burials at the National Cemetery each year and also responds to full honors burial requests at local and regional cemeteries across Riverside County and the State of California. MHD is an all-volunteer force, recognized by the U.S. Veterans Administration, comprised of veterans of the armed forces from each branch, supported by a small number of civilians. In February of 2017 MHD received the County’s highest military honor it bestows , the Distinguished Service Award, recognizing the performance of 50,134 services since 1996 or just over 1 half million volunteer hours.
The teams perform services year-round —rain or shine — and receive no compensation for their services. Riverside National Cemetery hosts the most internments/burials of any military veterans’ cemetery in the nation. MHD has more than 500 volunteer members. Recruitment for team members who can pass a rigorous military honors training program is currently in progress.
“It means everything to me to be able to do this,” Smith said. “It’s a greater appreciation of life for the services and sacrifices that the fellow veterans have made, regardless of the era that they served. That we get to be a part of that final tribute that we can give to them is an honor. We are also able to provide some sort of comfort for the families. Because once we do this for them, then they leave out the gates of the national cemetery, wherever we do services, this is going to be a lasting memory in their minds, you know? So, we do the very best that we can.”
Every burial, he said, is “super important.” But the burials that take place on the third Wednesday of each month are the most difficult.
“We have burials out there for the unclaimed veterans, and that’s a gut-wrencher for everyone because these are veterans who died on Skid Row or in hospitals or whatever, families didn’t claim them,” Smith said. “Some of them we’ve had in a morgue almost up to a whole year before we got them to bury them, and that really stands out.”
Anyone in attendance at these services — and wishes — receives a flag on behalf of that veteran. They also receive a certificate so that no veteran is buried without some semblance of family there. This particular service is at 9:30 a.m. and it lasts roughly about an hour.
“We’ve had as many as 11 at one time unclaimed souls that we have a service for,” Smith said.
The unclaimed souls come from all over southern California. Some come from the coroners’ offices; some have been left at mortuaries. The remains are turned over to the National Cemetery after the necessary paperwork is completed with the Department of Defense. DOD schedules the services.
“We hold the service with the bell tolling and the recognition of those veterans on that particular day,” Smith said.
Smith is also Vice Chairman of the Riverside County Fourth District Veteran Cabinet and advises Supervisor V. Manuel “Manny” Perez on veterans and military matters.
“Dan and I have served together at MHD for over a decade,” said Tom Freeman, former Vice Chairman MHD and retired Colonel, state military department, state reserve. “He was a model Marine and a fantastic man. He devotes countless hours each week to the cause of ensuring that our fellow veterans receive a full honor burial in recognition of their service to the nation. He is a Marines Marine.”