Ashes Found in Trash Led to Proper Burial

Friday, 29 January 2010

The two teenagers  got to the cemetery first. He wore his dark green dress uniform  from the National Guard. She wore a long black dress. The stood on the edge of the road, across from rows of  matching military headstones, waiting for the funeral of the  man they had never met.

Mike Colt, 19, and  his girlfriend, Carol Sturgell, 18, had driven more than an  hour from their Tampa homes last month to be atFlorida  National Cemetery in Bushnell.

They weren’t really  sure why they had come. They just knew they had to be here.

“It’s kind of sad,  huh?” asked Sturgell, scanning the sea of white gravestones.

Colt nodded. “Yeah,  but it feels kind of important.”

At 12:20 p.m., a  Tampa police car pulled up, then a white Lincoln Town Car.  Another police cruiser followed. Two officers stepped out.

“Thank you for  being here,” Colt said, shaking both of their hands.

“No, thank you,”  said Officer Dan College. “If it weren’t for you guys, none of  us would be here.”

More than a month  ago , on the last Saturday of November, the young couple was  hanging out at Sturgell’s house when her brother rode up on his  bike, all excited. He had found two fishing poles in this huge  pile of trash. Come check it out, he said. So they did.

At the edge of the  trash mound, sticking out from beneath a box, Sturgell spied a  worn green folder.

She pulled it out,  brushed off the dust. Across the top, bold letters said,  “Department of Defense.” Inside, she found retirement papers  from the U.S. Army; a citation for a Purple Heart issued in  1945; and a certificate for a Bronze Star medal “for heroism in  ground combat in the vicinity of Normandy, France … June  1944.” In the center of the certificate there was a name:  Delbert E. Hahn.

Why would anyone  throw that away? Sturgell asked.

And who is that  guy? Colt wanted to know. Must be old, a World War II vet.  Looks like he served at D-Day!

That night, they  took the paperwork back to Sturgell’s house and searched  Delbert E. Hahn on the computer. Nothing. They talked about who  he might have been, the life he might have led.

The next morning,  they went back to the trash heap and searched for more clues.  They rummaged through boxes, overturned furniture, picked  through piles of the past. Colt moved a ratty couch – and  something fell out. A metal vase, or box, some kind of  rectangular
container about a foot tall. On the base was the  name: Delbert E. Hahn.

“It’s him,” Colt  told his girlfriend. “This must be him, in his urn.”

Sturgell screamed.  She didn’t want to touch it. It was kind of freaky, she said,  discovering the remains of some dead guy.

“He shouldn’t be  here,” Colt said. “No one should be thrown away like that, just  left in a parking lot.”

The dead man wasn’t  alone. Under the couch, the couple found two more sets of  remains: a cylinder-style container with Barbara Hahn printed  on the bottom and another urn, which had no name.

Tampa police Cpl.  Edward Croissant had just reported for the night shift that  Sunday when his officers showed him the urns. This kid and his  girlfriend had found them and brought them to the station.

Then an officer  told Croissant about the Purple Heart. The Bronze Star. And the  Normandy invasion.

And Croissant  became irate. He had served eight years in the Navy. He’s in  the Coast Guard Reserve. “I had three uncles in World War II.  That was the greatest generation. If it wasn’t for those men,  we would have nothing,” he said.

“That man saw  combat. And someone just dumped him there? He deserves a better  ending.”

Police called the  Department of Veterans Affairs and learned Hahn had died in  1983, at the age of 62, -and was a highly decorated war hero.  The staff sergeant had served in the infantry and been honored  with five Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.

Barbara Hahn, they  learned, was the soldier’s wife.

So how did their  remains end up in that mound of garbage? Where was the rest of  their family, or friends, anyone who would want their ashes?  And who was in that third urn?

Neighbors filled in  some of the story: Barbara Hahn had been a widow forever, they  told police. For years, her mother had lived with her. Her  mother’s name was Barbara, too.

The elder Barbara  had lived to be more than 100. They thought she died around  2000. That third urn, neighbors told police, must be her.

The younger  Barbara, the soldier’s wife, got sick in 2003. A couple came to  care for her, and she wound up willing them her mobile home.  When she died, the couple moved in, took out a mortgage, then  didn’t make payments.

The bank foreclosed  on the trailer late last year.

In November,  officials sent a maintenance company to clear it out. The  workers must have just dumped everything behind the vacant  building on Busch Boulevard, neighbors told police. Including  the remains of three people.

Just before 1 p.m.  Dec. 16 , the two teenagers led the car line through Florida  National Cemetery. Police followed, then the funeral director  who had the urns. Outside a wooden gazebo, two rows of National  Guardsmen stood at attention.

The funeral  director handed the first soldier a flag, the next one the  cylinder with Barbara Hahn’s remains, the third one the brass  urn with Delbert Hahn.

(Barbara’s mother’s  remains are still in the evidence room of the police station.  Since she wasn’t a veteran or married to one, she wasn’t  entitled to be buried in the military cemetery..)

“Let us open the  gates of the Lord,” said a military chaplain, who led the  procession of strangers into the gazebo. “Let us remember,”  said the chaplain, “none of us lives only unto himself.”

The teenagers sat  on the front bench. Three officials from Veterans Affairs sat  behind them. They had spent weeks searching for the Hahns’  relatives, any distant kin or friend, someone who might want  their ashes – or at least want to come to their burial.

They couldn’t find  anyone. Even the couple whom Barbara Hahn had willed her home  to didn’t show.

By the time the  chaplain lifted his head from the Lord’s Prayer, a long line of  men had wrapped around the gazebo.

Wearing blue denim  shirts and work boots, they clasped their caps in their hands  and bowed their heads. Dozens of groundskeepers from the  cemetery had left their Christmas party to come pay respects to  the man who, in death, had been so disrespected.

A bugler played  taps. The riflemen fired three shots. And 56 people watched the  honor guard fold a flag over the urns of the man and woman they  never knew


Army LTCOL Sam Sanford saw this article in the St  Petersburg Times. Col. Sanford sent it to Sergeant of Marines James Bancroft. Sgt Bancroft sent it to us.From Khe Sanh  Veteran’s message board

Ashes Found in  Trash Led to Proper Burial
January 05, 2010

St. Petersburg  Times

16 Responses to “Ashes Found in Trash Led to Proper Burial”

  1. Marie Says:

    How thoughtful to give them a proper burial.

  2. thistle Says:

    I believe God sent those 2 young people to the trash heap that day. What a great story and a happy ending.

  3. Cremation Says:

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  6. The flip side is being “Unknown but to God” yet having a decent burial. I wonder how many people wonder what happened to their relative’s remains during or after WWII. Go here: Until today, I thought there were only a few unknowns… turns out there might be more than I ever realized. MacPUBLIUS

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