Strangers Unite to Ensure Veteran who Died Was Not Alone or Forgotten

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A veteran stands quietly at Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly, Mich.
FILE -- In this Nov. 12, 2018 file photo, Howard Tibbits of the Patriot Guard Riders takes a private moment during a military ceremony at Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly, Mich., to inter the remains of 20 veterans found at Cantrel Funeral Home in Detroit. (Dale G.Young /Detroit News via AP)

The pews were empty and the service brief.

Only a few had gathered to pay their last respects to John Shepherd Herbst, a 71-year-old veteran of the Vietnam War who died on Jan. 4.

He'd been alone, not just in the hospital room, where he was on a ventilator for two weeks battling coronavirus and renal failure, but in the world.

Family records online showed his father, H.T "Tom" Herbst, had owned Federal Security Alarm Systems in downtown Toledo, and prior to that was vice president of Ohio Clay Co. in Cleveland, where he grew up. He also had three sisters and a brother, some of whom appeared to be half siblings, but all were either deceased or estranged.

The only friends he claimed were his two cats, Mollie and Minnie, and a neighbor he talked to occasionally named Steve.

His memory could have slipped away as quietly as he lived. No one close to him was present to weep over his ashes as he was interred on Feb. 12 in the Great Lakes National Cemetery in Michigan, roughly 100 miles north of the border. The void was made even more evident by the assemblage of mourners — relative strangers, to him and to each other.

There were the Navy guard members who placed the plastic box containing his ashes in the center of an otherwise barren altar, and who held open before it an American flag during Taps.

There was the cemetery representative who saluted his fellow military brethren, and cleared the area for the next service.

Jeff Buehrer, co-owner of American Cremation Events, stood at the back. He'd driven Mr. Herbst's cremains up from Toledo.

And then there was Erin O'Connell, a 47-year-old woman with salt and pepper hair and the kind of big heart that seemingly defied the capacity of her thin body. With her were her husband and son.

It was she who gathered them all to pay final respects to a man she'd only spoken to on the phone and whom she could hardly claim to know. It's why no one spoke during the service outside of the traditional presentation of the burial flag, which went to Mrs. O'Connell by default. None there knew Mr. Herbst enough to regale stories of his life or speak to his character.

In all the service lasted less than five minutes — perhaps a kindness considering the spitting snow swirling through the outdoor pavilion, making it feel colder than 18 degrees.

But it happened, something to recognize that John Herbst had lived, had fought for his country, and, though he may not have known it in the end, he was not alone or forgotten.

"Finally," Mrs. O'Connell exhaled after the service. "But we couldn't do that for him when he was alive, we couldn't tell him that we recognize him as a person — you're here, we see you, you matter, you're OK, we're going to take care of you."

She wonders how many other veterans are living and dying in Toledo, waiting to be paid the same respect.

"At least in his death I could remember him," she said.

Chance

It was by chance that Mrs. O'Connell came to know Mr. Herbst at all.

She was part of a volunteer group on Facebook and was asked to look in on his cats while he was hospitalized for a fall back in May, and then sent to a nursing home for recovery. She took on the responsibilities of a caregiver, expecting them to be temporary.

She cleaned his apartment at Executive Towers on Collingwood Boulevard and helped keep his bills paid, in preparation for a return he never made. She fed and socialized his cats, which she ultimately surrendered back to Paws and Whiskers Cat Shelter, where he'd got them. She dropped off personal effects and sugar-free candy to make him feel more at home. And she allowed herself to be an emergency contact, of sorts, when he needed help — he never called just to chat.

But when he contracted coronavirus and died, she inadvertently found herself the de facto next of kin. Suddenly people were relying on her to be the signing informant on his death certificate and asking her how he'd want to be buried or if she wanted to store his ashes at her home until the funeral.

She barely knew him, but she knew he deserved more than to be "another statistic, just another old person quietly added to the massive total of Americans lost to COVID-19," as she wrote in his obituary. That too fell to Mrs. O'Connell, who pieced it together using Ancestry.com and paid for it out of her own pocket.

She learned that, prior to entering her life, Mr. Herbst had lived largely unseen and in squalor, especially after in-person health and safety checks were suspended during the pandemic. Visitor restrictions even prohibited her from ever checking in on him.

Lonely, but not alone

Unfortunately it's not uncommon for veterans to find themselves alone at the end of their life, said Jason Brown, deputy director of the Lucas County Veterans Service Commission

Some may have outlived everyone in their close circle, or they may be estranged. Others just don't have anyone able or willing to take on the responsibility of putting a life to rest.

In those cases, it falls on Mr. Brown's agency and partnering funeral homes to ensure every person who has served their country, or their spouse, finds a final resting place. They help finance and plan about 30 cremations or burials a year, he said, at least a sixth of them involving a person who is companionless.

Partner agencies like American Cremation Events help. They arranged for Mr. Herbst's cremation and secured his burial in the national cemetery. Sometimes, the owners said, they're standing at funerals alone, the last witness to a life.

"Everybody thinks they have family but a lot of people don't have family. You'd be surprised," Mr. Buehrer said.

It's a sad reality, but the number of people standing at a person's grave does not define their worth, the agencies agreed.

"At the end of the day, I didn't know John, but he served," Mr. Brown said. "We're all veterans here, so we take it personally."

Outside of Mr. Herbst's military record, which showed he'd served as a Navy aircraft mechanic from 1967 to 1971 and had earned a National Defense Service Medal and Meritorious Unit Commendation, not much else is known about him.

His former employer at Welch Publishing, where he'd worked for at least a decade before diabetes forced him to retire, said he really only ever talked about his cats, though he mentioned having a brother in Hawaii once.

Still he was a "gentle guy, really just a good guy," owner Chet Welch said.

Tim Barker, the director of social services at Toledo Healthcare, didn't learn much more in the months he spent with Mr. Herbst at the facility.

"I found him to be a nice guy," Mr. Barker said. "From what I gather, he was a very pet-friendly guy, loved his cats...he was reserved, really didn't share a lot."

What remains

What Mrs. O'Connell knew of him she'd mainly learned from the few belongings she packed up from his apartment, which remain in boxes in her garage.

He had no photos of family or friends, not even of himself. The only photos she ever saw of him were his driver's license and a senior photo she found in an online 1967 yearbook from Rocky River High School in Cleveland, where he graduated.

Instead he filled his walls with pictures of Martin Luther King, Jr., former President Barack Obama, military flags, and a framed copy of Time magazine with Greta Thunberg on the cover.

Was he an activist? Mrs. O'Connell wondered.

He kept sketchbooks of cartoon animals or dinosaurlike characters, each signed with his initials — JSH — which he flanked with little red hearts. The same characters were painted on rocks displayed throughout his apartment.

It's unknown if any of the designs were ever published, but was he an illustrator, she thought?

On his death certificate it labeled him divorced.

Could he be a father?

"I don't know that I can really answer who John Herbst is. I don't know," Mrs. O'Connell said. "Whether he lived his life and had arguments with people, I don't know about any of that, but everybody deserves the dignity of a proper burial."

The only things she may ever really know about the relative stranger who has become a fixture in her life is that he loved cats, serendipitously shared her birthday — Sept. 17 — and was a veteran.

But it's enough, she said, thinking of the Abraham Lincoln quote she'd had printed on birdseed packets made up in his honor. It read, "Honor to the soldier and sailor everywhere, who bravely bears his country's cause. Honor, also, to the citizen who cares for his brother in the field and serves, as he best can, the same cause."

"It was talking about John and a little bit about me, about how we came to know each other and how we can all help each other," Mrs. O'Connell said of her choice.

Even strangers.

"And see what happened," she said. "People are going to know about his story."

This article is written by Kaitlin Durbin from The Blade and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.

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