When Gary Pearson signed his enlistment papers in 1955, he wrote a blank check for his life to the U.S. Navy. But to get taps played at his funeral, and an American flag presented to his family, the honor guard needed proof of his service.
It's something his family didn't have.
"I will say that my parents moved around a lot when I was younger," said Jennifer Bonnett. "I don't know if really they were lost."
Over two weeks, daughter Jennifer Bonnett worked with the funeral home and contacted the County Veterans Service Officer, National Veterans Affairs, the Sacramento Valley National Cemetery, their Congressman, and the National Archives. With three days to spare before his scheduled service, they contacted me. I contacted Veterans Affairs and the National Archives, which assured me the request was expedited.
"And after all that, nobody pulled through in time?" CBS13's Kurtis Ming asked.
"No," Bonnett replied.
At his service, Pearson's family blared taps through a cell phone speaker.
"I think it's disappointing," Bonnett said. "I think that he should have more."
The proof of his service finally arrived, two days after his funeral.
"Just too late," Bonnett said.
Valarie Rose, who works in the funeral education program at American River College, said sadly, it is very hard to get military honors without the paperwork, and it is very slow getting it from the National Archives. She said in some cases, local honor guards will step in if a family can provide a military ID card or photos in uniform — it's not guaranteed. Gary Pearson's family didn't even have that.
We were surprised to learn Veterans Affairs does not have records for every person who served, but the agency says DD Form 214 is the proof families need which is given to every servicemember when they are discharged. If lost, the veteran or their family can apply for a free replacement through the National Archives.
The full statements from both the National Archives and Veterans Affairs are below.
With proof of his military service now in hand, Gary Pearson's family revisited his grave one week after his funeral with an honor guard giving him the respect we owe every veteran who honorably served our nation.
"Closing the final chapter and giving him what he deserved," Bonnett said. "He would have been tickled by that. That's the phrase my dad used a lot. So, I guess he would have been tickled."
Jennifer Bonnett is an assignment editor for CBS13.
NATIONAL ARCHIVES PUBLIC AND MEDIA COMMUNICATIONS STATEMENT
"We are sorry to hear the family was unable to secure an honor guard for the service. Staff at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC), many of whom are veterans themselves, are deeply committed to supporting veterans and their families. Because the Center receives approximately 25,000 requests each week, we have specific guidance on our website, an expedited business process, and a dedicated team to focus exclusively on urgent requests to support burials and other time-sensitive emergencies.
In this instance NPRC received three separate requests from three separate parties for the same analog record at the same time. It received a request from the Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Scheduling Office on May 10th and furnished the requested records on May 12th. It received a request from the Department of the Navy on May 11th and responded on May 13th. It also received a request from the family of the veteran on May 9th and responded on May 15th. The request from the VA's National Cemetery Scheduling Office was serviced first because this office has the primary responsibility for verifying eligibility for burial in VA national cemeteries.
We regret that we were not able to respond to all three requests at the same time. We strive to respond to all requests involving burials as quickly as possible.
While the NPRC supports the VA and the military departments with access to records, it does not secure honor guard services. This is a function of each of the military departments."
VETERANS AFFAIRS STATEMENT
"VA politely declines an interview as military burial honors are handled outside our agency, but please see our statement below, attributable to Terrence Hayes, press secretary:
VA extends our deepest condolences to the Pearson family as they grieve. Unfortunately, we cannot discuss Mr. Pearson's military records or eligibility for military funeral honors, as both these functions fall outside our agency. Military funeral honors are provided by the Department of Defense, and military records are maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration.
Our goal at VA is to provide Veterans and their families with the lasting resting places and memorial services that they have earned through their service to our nation. We appreciate your interest in spreading the word to Veterans about the benefits available to them, and we hope your reporting will cover more the full range of planning that Veterans and families should consider.
VA urges everyone to plan ahead. Veterans should include their military discharge papers with their wills, as these papers are key to securing a number of government-provided services. Veterans can order their records from the National Archives using the MilConnect website. To learn more, visit: https://www.va.gov/records/get-military-service-records/
We encourage Veterans to apply for VA life insurance to ensure their survivors have funds when needed. They should talk with those they trust and write their health care decisions in a Living Will or Advance Care Plan. Survivors' benefits may be available, including Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, a VA Survivors Pension, and Burial Allowance. More information on these benefits can be found here: https://www.va.gov/family-member-benefits/
If a Veteran is considering burial in a national cemetery, we recommend applying now for Pre-Need eligibility determination: https://www.va.gov/burials-memorials/pre-need-eligibility/
Veterans should document their wishes to ensure their family will have access to resources at their time of need.
There is nothing more important to us than helping Veterans and their families in times of need, and we apologize if there was any miscommunication between this family and our staff at Sacramento Valley National Cemetery. Our job is to help wherever and however we can."
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