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Queens Chronicle

Flags of the fallen looking for a home

VVA Chapter 32 president carries on in his quest to honor those lost

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Posted: Thursday, August 29, 2019 10:30 am

There are dozens of burial flags in the basement of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 32 headquarters on 149th Street in Whitestone — and no one to claim them.

After years of seeing that indigent veterans get a proper military funeral — more than 125 to date — they have been the only ones to accept the flags given to military families at their funerals.

At first, they put the flags, each with a name tag, up on the walls of the headquarters. But now there are just too many.

In 2008, then-VVA Chapter 32 President Pat Toro and Life Associate Member Robert Boisselle learned about the hundreds of veterans buried without ceremony at Hart Island. Toro had the chapter declared Organizational Friends of Indigent Veterans in New York City.

The organization works with Hess-Miller Funeral Home and accompanies each veteran’s hearse to Calverton Cemetery in Suffolk County, where a graveside service is held, taps is played and a flag is presented to a chapter member in lieu of next of kin.

Toro died in 2014 but current-chapter President Manfred Edenhofer is carrying on the legacy.

“For the last year we have not gotten a burial,” said Edenhofer. “Now you can’t tell me that in the last year no veteran who had no family died in the City of New York. You can’t make me believe that.”

During recent Memorial Day parades, Francis Lewis High School JROTC members have walked with flags as veterans gave out pamphlets with more information as they look for next of kin.

But Edenhofer asks, “If the city can’t find them, what chance do we have with a piece of paper?”

And if a late veteran had no family?

“They’re still veterans,” Edenhofer said. “We’re their family.”

City Department of Veterans’ Services spokesman Gabriel Ramos said in an email, “Our agency works with a number of [Voluntary Service Overseas] partners across the city including chapters from VVA, American Legion, and VFW among others. It may be the case that the bulk of the veterans buried this year were concentrated in other boroughs and were better handled by other chapters. I assure you, the important work of ensuring proper burials and final honors for our City’s indigent or unclaimed veterans continues.”

Edenhofer was in Junior ROTC at Xavier High School in Manhattan. He wore his uniform every day, inspected and took rifles apart, learned how to shoot in the basement and learned about war history.

Then he joined ROTC at Fordham.

“I figured I’m going to get drafted I might as well go in as a second lieutenant,” Edenhofer said.

It was the middle of the 1960s and there were antiwar protests at the school.

“I’m ROTC,” Edenhofer said. “What side do you think I’m going to be on? I was, before the war, ‘Yeah, we should be over there.’ My classmates are across the street telling us to go screw ourselves, we shouldn’t be over there. Turns out they were probably right.”

He added, “We were spoon-fed what they wanted us to hear,” Edenhofer said. “Some of us bought in and some didn’t.”

Because he was in ROTC he was told he could go anywhere he wanted for 22 months before being shipped to Vietnam in exchange for an extra year of active duty, meaning he would do two years of active duty and two more in the Reserve.

Edenhofer went to Germany — he spoke the language fluently and there was a favorable exchange rate.

“Did I have it made over there,” he said.

After a month back in the States he left for Vietnam.

“I’m lucky,” Edenhofer said. “I went in as an MP. Nobody was trying to kill me.”

When he arrived he was sent to Officer Basic Training and was called in by Sgt. Arthur Todd, who had been his sergeant in Germany. The two men embraced.

“Nobody’s shooting at my lieutenant,” Todd said. “I got you a good job.”

Edenhofer did airport security at Cam Ranh Bay. “Easy job. Boring as hell.”

However, he got Agent Orange because of what was being transported in.

“I’m lucky,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of guys with Purple Hearts.”

Edenhofer was surprised when a veteran he knew took a trip to Vietnam. He wondered why a soldier would want to go where 58,000 Americans had died but his friend simply said, “It’s a beautiful country.”

The welcome-home World War II soldiers received was not the same for the Vietnam veterans. They were turned away from VFW posts, told “Vietnam was not a war.”

The VVA operates under the principle “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.”

At a street fair several years ago, Edenhofer saw a younger-looking Asian man with a Vietnam veterans hat. Edenhofer asked if he was a veteran and the man said he was.

Edenhofer said, “Welcome home” and hugged the man, who started laughing.

“I wasn’t on your side,” he said. “I was a kid. They made me a tunnel rat. They said they’d kill my family if I didn’t. I was trying to kill you f---ing guys.”

Edenhofer’s reply: “You’re a Vietnam vet, ain’t you? You live here now? Welcome home.”

Then Edenhofer introduced the man to the rest of the veterans at the booth.

“Hey guys, meet the enemy,” he joked.

Michael Shain contributed to this story.

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