By MICHAEL GOULDING / THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
The band of brothers came together — some of them for eternity — at the Riverside National Cemetery. On a recent Wednesday morning, members of the Patriot Guard Riders gathered to honor 10 men who served in war and died in obscurity.
As a longtime officer with the Fullerton Police Department, Doyle Tolbert learned of the often lonely plight of veterans.
“While I was working the streets in Fullerton as a policeman, I came in contact with a homeless man, and over time we became friends,” said Tolbert, an Army Vietnam veteran. “He was a real character; it was like talking to my granddad. When he died, I came to find that he was a decorated World War II hero. To everyone else, he was just a drunk. It was at that point I changed my view of the homeless.”
After Tolbert joined the LAPD, he began hounding the Los Angeles County coroner’s office to check the service records of the deceased. Usually, unclaimed bodies are cremated and buried in a common grave. Due to Tolbert’s activism, however, the coroner’s office now sends veterans to Riverside National Cemetery for burial.
In 2008, Tolbert founded Veterans Without Families, which organizes funeral services for members of the armed forces no longer connected to relatives. Patriot Guard Riders — motorcycle enthusiasts who mostly act as escorts at funerals for men and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan — can be counted on to attend these services, as well.
“Veterans, regardless, deserve to be honored,” Tolbert said. “It wasn’t right to be buried without military honors.”
Every Wednesday, when necessary, Patriot Guard Riders and American Legion Riders congregate at Riverside National Cemetery to witness the burials and provide the honors that go with them.
The morning starts with a small ceremony that features a military honor guard, provided by the cemetery, which folds a single American flag and performs a gun salute for all of the veterans without families who will be buried that day. A brief prayer follows a reading of their names.
An hour or two later, simple caskets arrive in vans and hearses from the coroner’s office and the morgue.
As each casket is lowered into the ground, the Patriot Guard Riders raise their individual flags. A member of the group hands a small floral bouquet to a cemetery worker — who places the baby’s breath and single red carnation on the casket. Tolbert pronounces the veteran’s name, concluding, “May you rest in peace. We are your family.”
Since February of 2008, the riders have witnessed nearly 2,000 burials and dedications for veterans without families — many who served in Vietnam.
“One veteran was found on the steps of a church, one was found in an alley, one was found in a garage that a Good Samaritan let him live in and one was found in a gutter,” said retired Orange firefighter Mark Wayland, a Marine Vietnam vet. “They were all Vietnam vets and they were all buried on the same day.”
The Veterans’ Administration estimates that on any given night, about 107,000 veterans are homeless — half from the Vietnam era. Today, thousands of people who served in Iraq and Afghanistan return to equally uncertain futures.
“The greatest tragedy in life is to be forgotten in death,” Wayland said.