Twelve men gathered Halloween morning and saluted the coffin of a man they knew very little about.
With the aid of a small bus, the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 32 of Queens escorted Randolph Michael Royal’s body from Hess-Miller Funeral home all the way to Calverton National Cemetery in Long Island. They arranged to have two present-day Army members attend and conduct a flag folding ceremony for Royal. A live bugler played “Taps.” To the veterans, this was a nice touch — often there is only a recording available. This was the 80th such burial for the chapters’ leaders – president Paul Narson, vice president Mike Daughtry, treasurer Tom Corbin, and chaplain Tom Van Etten
“It’s by no means a waste of time,” Hess-Miller Funeral home director Anthony Martino said.
None of them had ever met Royal. What they knew of the man was a few stray scraps of information delivered as a part of a two-page release from the Mayor’s Office of Veteran Affairs. Royal had served in the Army during peace time, mainly during the late 1970s and early 80s. Narson thought that timing was strange considering there were conflicts during Royal’s service period. Royal died July 25. The long wait period is not uncommon in these situations, Narson said, sometimes as long as six months. Royal’s sister was listed as having abandoned her brother.
The goal of these Vietnam Veterans is to not allow any veteran to end up in an unmarked grave at Potter’s Field. Part of the reason the Vietnam Veterans have taken on this continual task is a loophole that allows them to transport a body out of the city, something the mayor’s office cannot do.
“It’s a matter of respect,” Narson said. “We consider it an honor and a privilege. These men deserve to be buried with dignity. They earned it.”
An undercurrent in this activity, that Narson and Corbin acknowledged, is that, in a different world where a few life decisions had been made differently – a family relationship might have been strained – one of them could have been in the same situation as Royal.
One member of the chapter talked about tearing up at a recent veterans parade when a woman thanked him for his service. Narson said this crowd reaction was not the response when they were returning from Vietnam with the thoughts of war still heavy on their minds. Daughtry served during the Tet Offensive. He was shot twice.
“In the last couple of years we were starting to get big ovations,” Narson said. “I always tell people, ‘stop blaming the vets. Blame the people who put us there. We went where we were told to go.’”
These vets are offering the respect they desire. Royal will not be forgotten. Keeping the flag from the ceremony, it will be placed with 79 others along the chapter house’s wall. Should a relative come and claim it, they will conduct a ceremony handing off the flag, but the nameplate will stay up and they will put another flag in its place.