Captain Joe recently contributed to an article, “No Flags for the Fallen,” where he discussed some of the issues Veterans and their families face when attempting to obtain a burial flag. Please read below and contribute to the conversation as Captain Joe and everyone at Sea Star Burials at Sea believe it is vitally important to be aware and knowledgable of this situation.
No Flags for the Fallen
Families report difficulty fulfilling ‘the last thing we can do to honor our veterans.’
By Ken Olsen
(Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved)
Linda Oliveto was turned away from post office after post office shortly before Christmas 2013. She worried she wouldn’t be able to help her boss obtain a burial flag for his father’s funeral. Although Jim Elliott’s father clearly qualified – Norman Elliott was a Marine wounded at Iwo Jima – almost none of the postal workers Oliveto contacted were aware that the U.S. Postal Service is supposed to provide flags to the families of veterans. And none of the post offices she called had any on hand.
“One person said, ‘The post office doesn’t have any flags – we’re broke,’” Oliveto says. “One said, ‘We have American-flag stamps.’ We were getting closer and closer to the funeral, and I didn’t know if he was going to get one.”
Such frustration has become common in the past three years, says Joe Cacciola of Oceanside, Calif., a Marine Corps veteran who has conducted burials at sea for families for a quarter century. “It’s gotten to a critical point where almost no one is able to obtain a flag. I think someone in charge is trying to let this program slip away.”
VA distributes about 500,000 flags a year to a variety of locations, including post offices, as part of a program created by Congress in 1958. “This program was designed to make it very easy and very simple for families,” Cacciola says. “You could go to a post office in Podunk, Kansas, and by law they were supposed to give you a (burial) flag.”
Indeed, VA’s website advertises that families of veterans or funeral directors can obtain one free burial flag “at any VA regional office or U.S. post office” with a record of a veteran’s honorable discharge, a death certificate and a completed VA Form 27-2008. But there are huge holes in the program in California cities with sizeable veteran populations such as Los Angeles, San Diego and Oceanside, and parts of Oklahoma. Families frequently come up empty-handed after visiting post offices in search of burial flags, says Cacciola, who instructs his customers to go to a main post office rather than a branch.
Cacciola recently checked three post offices in Oceanside. Only one had flags, and the postal clerk told him the flags weren’t available to families of deceased veterans – only funeral directors.
“We’re located in a city of 185,000 situated next door to the West Coast’s largest Marine Corps base, Camp Pendleton,” says Cacciola, a member of American Legion Post 146 in Oceanside. “And we’re located within San Diego County, which is highly populated by veterans of all the U.S. armed services. I don’t think that’s how the program is supposed to work.”
Families who go to VA also are frustrated, Cacciola says. “Some are directed back to the post office. Some try to go through the VA application process and then don’t get the flag or don’t get it in a timely manner. It may take so long to get it that these burials and honors have passed.”
VA said it will review its flag-distribution program after being contacted by The American Legion Magazine about families’ frustrations. The Postal Service, meanwhile, says it doesn’t receive many burial flag complaints.
“Please assure your readers that we take their concerns seriously,” says David Partenheimer, USPS’ media relations manager. The agency is sending a burial flag reminder to California and Oklahoma post offices and will issue a system-wide alert later this year. “Without more specific information … I would have to say these are not typical of our experiences with funeral directors, who make up the lion’s share of those who seek flags from postal operations,” Partenheimer says.
But longtime Oklahoma veterans service officer John Cloud says funeral homes can be part of the problem. “I have run into funeral homes just not helping the families anymore with VA burial benefits, flags and headstones,” says Cloud, who became volunteer service officer at American Legion Post 1 in Tulsa in 2010 after a 35-year career with the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs. He first noticed families having difficulty getting flags about a year ago.
Part of the problem may be an unadvertised caveat in the flag program. Less than half of U.S. post offices carry burial flags, according to USPS data. “With so many post offices so close together, it makes sense for us to create depository offices in a geographic area, but not at every office,” Partenheimer says. People can call a toll-free number to find which locations offer flags. In Los Angeles, the district Mailing Requirements Office administers the burial flag program, he adds.
But Norman Elliott’s family struck out there as well. The USPS employee who answered the phone at the district office put Oliveto on hold, she explained, and called several other numbers in an attempt to help her find a flag.
Oliveto finally left a message at VA’s regional office in Los Angeles. When the agency called back, she was told it didn’t have any flags.
“My biggest surprise was that VA didn’t have any flags – more so than that the post offices didn’t,” Oliveto says. “This is the last thing we can do to honor our veterans and is important.”
VA acknowledges that the Los Angeles regional office should have had a burial flag.
available. Instead, that office gave Oliveto phone numbers for three veterans service organizations. The number provided for Disabled American Veterans was disconnected. The local American Legion post told Oliveto to call Camp Pendleton since Norman Elliott had been a Marine. The Military Order of the Purple Heart came through with a flag.
The fix is straightforward and relatively inexpensive, Cacciola says: make sure that every post office, regardless of location, has burial flags.
“This is one of those rare occasions in life when taking such simple action can actually make a positive difference in so many people’s lives. Each and every flag becomes a treasured family heirloom that is passed on from one generation to another. We, as a nation, cannot allow such an honorable tradition to fade away.”
This story originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of The American Legion Magazine. Read more of Ken Olsen’s stories about veteran’s issues at Veterans Voices.