Dayton-area volunteers gather to give veterans their ‘final salutes’

Volunteers also discover forgotten veterans markers and memorials to refurbish them

On a mid-October afternoon, Army Sgt. Willie Thomas and Marine Corps privates Robert Cumpston and Ronald Willis received their final salutes at Dayton National Cemetery from people who never knew them.

The three men served their country — Thomas in the Korean War and Cumpston and Willis in Vietnam ― but had no one to witness their final dispositions.

That’s where a group of local volunteers who call themselves the “Final Salute Society” come in. Dozens of Dayton-area residents gather at the cemetery on short notice to say farewell to otherwise unaccompanied veterans.

In about 2012, Elaine Herrick’s son, Bruce — involved in the University of Dayton Army Reserve Officers Training Corps Honor Guard at the National Cemetery — told her about a burial of a veteran attended by no one else.

“He came home and he said, ‘Mom, that just wasn’t right. We went through all that. There was no one to present the flag to,’” Elaine Herrick, a Clayton resident, recalled.

Herrick found herself in agreement. She called a friend, retired Gen. Charles Metcalf, then director of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. Together, they met with cemetery staff. (Metcalf died in October 2021.)

Herrick and Metcalf were told: ‘Oh, gosh, that happens all the time.”

“Gen. Metcalf and I looked at each other, and we said, ‘Well, that used to happen. It’s not going to happen anymore,’” she said.

At about the same time, Montgomery County Common Pleas Judge Dennis Adkins, who served on a Dayton National Cemetery support committee, became aware of the same issue — about 40 burials at the cemetery each year for unaccompanied veterans.

“I thought that was unjust,” Adkins said. “Everyone deserves to have a representative.”

Phone calls to Blue Star Families, Patriot Guard motorcycle riders and others soon brought out dozens of volunteers to attend these services at a moment’s notice.

Adkins, who oversees the county’s Montgomery County Veterans Treatment Court, said he was one of the first to receive a folded flag at what came to be known as a final salute service.

“That was a surreal feeling,” he said.

The Final Salute Society is one example of area volunteers coming together to honor veterans.

‘One of the most incredible, moving emotional experiences’

The first military funeral Jim and Leslie Groves ever attended was at Arlington National Cemetery. It was their son’s.

Jim and Leslie Groves are the parents of Army Chief Warrant Officer III James E. Groves III, a Kettering man who was killed in March 2013 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The younger Groves was 37. He would have been 47 last Tuesday.

The Groves have attended many Dayton final salutes.

Mr. Groves is a founding member and volunteer with the VA Honors Squad. He estimates he has put some 4,000 hours into the squad since 2015.

Only 10% of veterans are buried with full military honors, Mr. Groves said. Most don’t receive rifle salutes. He says squad members are present at some 1,250 services a year.

Overall, the Dayton National Cemetery Honor Squad has performed 50,746 volunteer hours since 2015, the squad said on Facebook.

At a final salute, one of the first they attended, Leslie Groves received the folded flag — the first she had received since her son’s funeral.

“It went well. We try to go to every one we can,” Mr. Groves said.

Herrick finds herself amazed at how many people will show up with just 24 hours’ notice.

Volunteers provide flowers, play Taps, drape the coffin with a flag, give the flag to someone on behalf of the nation, and offer prayers.

“You would never know if you drove by that this was a service where we didn’t know the person,” Herrick said.

“It’s one of the most incredible, moving emotional experiences you can have,” she added.

‘This community cares about its veterans’

The volunteers do more. With Adkins and friends, Herrick has made it a point in the past two years to search out, clean and repair markers and monuments dedicated to veterans.

Two years ago, Herrick found herself digging in the dirt off Patterson Boulevard across from the Dayton public library main branch, trying to find a modest marker dedicated to the memory of Union veterans of the Civil War.

She found it buried under several inches of hard-packed mulch.

“I came here many times to try to find it,” she said ruefully. “I knew it was buried in here ... I took my comb, and I’m banging on the hard mulch, on my hands and knees. I finally found this marker.”

“I just think it’s precious,” she added.

Guided by a binder titled “Dayton’s Public Art Catalogue” — first issued by the Dayton Public Arts Commission in 2001 that lists several public markers and monuments — Herrick considers this important work.

The volunteers pay Dodds Monuments to clean and repair markers when possible.

“This community cares about its veterans,” said Herrick, herself a Vietnam-era Air Force veteran. “They have been very supportive of the projects we’ve taken on.”

About the Author