They lived largely in anonymity, and they died alone. But Saturday, 20 veterans will be buried with full military honors after an armada of hearses, police cruisers and other vehicles form a solemn procession from the city to Calverton National Cemetery.
The ceremony will be the largest to date at Calverton, as a host of organizations and volunteers give a dignified burial to Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps members unclaimed in New York City's morgues.
"First and foremost, they served their country and that's really the important thing," said Mike Picerno, director of Calverton National Cemetery. "If they fell on hard times after that we don't look at that, we just want them to get the burial they deserve."
They served in war or peace time from the 1940s through the 1970s, as master sergeants, medical technicians, and Army privates.
The burials are the result of several groups coming together. Dignity Memorial, a national network of funeral homes, will donate coffins and transportation as part of its program to recover veterans' bodies before they end up among the unknown in burial grounds for the indigent.
The city is taking the bodies from morgues to waiting hearses for the journey east, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will reimburse some burial costs. The NYPD, Nassau and Suffolk police departments will provide police escorts.
Veterans from The Missing in America Project, a national nonprofit, have recruited volunteers to help with logistics. Members of The Gold Star Wives of America, another nonprofit, will stand in for relatives and friends. Every one of the veterans will arrive in a hearse, a flag draped over the coffin. Each will have a concrete marker and individual headstone.
Tribute organizers believe that no U.S. veteran should end up abandoned at a morgue. "We just can't let them linger there," said John Caldarelli, a Korean War veteran from Northport who is chair of the American Legion Greenlawn Post 1244 and state representative of the Missing in America Project. "Without them, we wouldn't have our freedoms."
The hearses are expected to arrive at Calverton at 10 a.m. The ceremony is scheduled for 11 a.m. The event will be open to the public.