Local Vietnam veteran doing his part to honor fallen soldiers
Nearly blown apart when a bomb exploded as he used a machete to clear bamboo in Vietnam in the fall of 1968, Lanny Golden returned home to Clairton the following year to silence.
“When I came home, I never received a card, or a letter, or a phone call from anybody,” Golden said on Monday, recalling the cold homecoming he and other Vietnam veterans experienced upon returning stateside from serving in an unpopular war.
“Nobody cared,” said Golden, who spent five months in Vietnam with the Army's 1st Air Cavalry Division before the explosion almost took one of his arms, earning him a Purple Heart, Bronze Star and a ticket home. “That's the one thing that eats me up more than anything else, the way we were treated.”
Golden, a Connellsville native who lives in North Union, said he relived that feeling of abandonment a few years ago when he viewed an online video sent to him by a Vietnam veterans' organization. The video, Golden said, drew attention to the fact that thousands of deceased veterans nationwide have never received proper burials because their remains are unclaimed.
“It shook me up when I saw it,” Golden said. “I took it personal. I thought, they're doing it again, treating them the same way we were treated when we came home.”
Wanting to help, Golden joined the nonprofit Missing in America Project, or MIAP, of which he serves as state coordinator for Pennsylvania. The group's aim is to locate and inter the remains of unclaimed veterans nationwide, according to its website.
Veterans groups soon joined Golden, and the push was on for a new state law to allow funeral homes to release unclaimed veterans' cremains without fear of liability, Golden said. Sponsored by state Rep. Deborah Kula, a Democrat who represents portions of Fayette and Westmoreland counties, that law, Act 101 of 2012, went into effect in July.
“This allows them, after exhausting all attempts to locate next of kin, to release cremains to veterans organizations, to be interred honorably and to have their final resting place,” Kula said. “We can now give every veteran the honor they deserve.”
On Aug. 23, veterans groups in Fayette County plan to use the new law for the first time in Pennsylvania to escort the cremains of as many as 14 unclaimed veterans to the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies in Washington County, said John Fabry, a Fairchance funeral director who is coordinating the service for the project.
Fabry said most of the remains were turned over to Fayette veterans' groups as a result of the new law. Some had been stored in funeral homes for as long as a decade or more. They include unclaimed remains of veterans who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Jim Killinger, deputy commander of the American Legion's 24th District, said the law will ensure deceased veterans whose remains are unclaimed receive proper military burials.
“These people served their country,” Killinger said. “They deserve to be buried with honor and dignity, instead of sitting on a funeral home shelf for God knows how long, or buried in a pauper's grave, with no recognition.”
Fabry said participating funeral homes will transport veterans' remains to a staging area at 8:45 a.m. on Aug. 23 in the J.C. Penney parking lot at Uniontown Mall. At 9 a.m., a motorcycle-escorted motorcade will carry the remains along routes 40, 519, 19 and 79 to the cemetery in Cecil Township for burial with full military honors.
Ron Metros, a Uniontown man who is assisting with the event, said the group's hope is to inspire other veterans' organizations in counties statewide to organize similar ceremonies. The number of unclaimed veterans' cremains in Pennsylvania is unknown, he said.
“It's anybody's guess,” Metros said, noting that the project estimates the number nationally to be in the thousands. “You have cremains sitting on the shelf that people aren't even aware of.”
For Golden, Aug. 23 represents more than just the culmination of efforts to ensure proper burials for the state's unclaimed veterans. It marks the exact day, 44 years ago, that he was nearly killed in the explosion in Vietnam.
“But this isn't about me,” Golden said, downplaying his role in advocating for the new law. “The biggest thing is promoting this project, and getting these guys buried, getting them in the national cemetery.”
Liz Zemba is a reporter for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or lzemba@tribweb,com.