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Remains of war heroes wait in storage as delays plague VA cemetery's opening

Gene Clyde Stottele rarely spoke about his experiences as a Korean war soldier, but his family knew what a painful toll the war took on the Town of Tonawanda man.

The infantryman spent many harrowing months in fierce combat on the front lines, including the infamous 1953 Battle at Pork Chop Hill, where one of his best Army buddies was killed by mortar fire in a bunker where Stottele had also crouched just minutes earlier.

“For years after the war, he had horrible nightmares about it and woke up next to my mom with his entire shirt drenched with sweat. It happened many, many times,” recalled one of Stottele’s daughters, Nancy Kerr.

Stottele, 86, died after a long illness in February, but he has yet to be buried.

His family is keeping his ashes in an urn at a Kenmore funeral home until Stottele can be buried with honors at the long-delayed military cemetery that is planned in Pembroke in Genesee County.

But – like many other families in Western New York – Stottele’s loved ones don’t know how long the wait will be.

The cemetery has been in the planning and discussion stages for a decade. At one point, construction was supposed to begin in 2017, with a possible opening in 2019. Then, government officials said it would open in 2020. In a story published on July 2, The Buffalo News disclosed that the opening date has been pushed back until at least 2021.

Meanwhile, some local funeral directors estimate that there are “hundreds” of local veterans whose ashes are being stored – either in funeral homes or on the shelves of family members’ homes – until the new burial ground opens.

“It’s true that there very well could be hundreds of these people, just waiting,” said D. Lawrence Ginnane, whose funeral home is handling arrangements for Stottele’s family. “We have at least 10 of them waiting here in our one funeral home. We have some in our possession, and we’ve convinced some other families to just take them home and keep them until the day comes.”

“It’s a shame when this happens, because when a loved one dies, you begin a process that begins with grieving and continues on through burial,” said David Shenk, Erie County’s director of veterans services. “You’ve got many people stuck halfway through the process, holding onto these ashes and waiting. This has been going on for years.”

Nancy Kerr said the situation is especially difficult for her 83-year-old mother, Helen Stottele. She and her husband, known to loved ones as “Clyde,” were married for 62 years.

“When she lost dad, my mom really didn’t want him to be cremated, but she wanted him to be buried in this new military cemetery,” Kerr said. “We convinced her that the best way to do that would be to have him cremated and store the remains that way. She’s waiting, and she still wants to be around when her husband is buried. I hope the government realizes what all these delays are doing to the families.”

Gene Clyde Stottele, a decorated Korean War veteran, died Feb. 6, 2019. His family wants his remains buried in the proposed military cemetery in Genesee County. But construction of the federal cemetery has been delayed for years. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Ashes on hold 3 years

One funeral director in Genesee County, who did not want to be quoted by name, said he has been holding onto the ashes – known in the funeral trade as cremains – of several war veterans since 2016.

He added that he knows of one family of a veteran who was not cremated and was buried in a Batavia Cemetery last year. The funeral director said the veteran’s family plans to have his body exhumed from its current grave and moved to the Pembroke military cemetery when it finally opens.

“I’ve talked to a lot of veterans’ families who are upset by this whole situation,” the Genesee County funeral director said. “I tell them to call the government, tell the government how you feel, and tell them to get off their tails and get moving on this.”

“It’s really not fair to the families,” Kerr said. “When my dad was drafted and sent to war in Korea, he was 18. He went because he felt it was his duty. He didn’t tell the government, ‘Let’s wait 10 years, then I’ll go.’ He went over to Korea and put his life on the line for his country, and he paid a price for that.”

Stottele earned a Purple Heart and other honors for his Korean War service, his family said.

“He never drank or smoked before the war, but after the war, he did those things. He was a good man, but he was never quite the same after that war,” Kerr said.

James Neider, an advocate for veterans who serves on a veterans honor guard in Genesee County, also sympathizes with the families.

Neider said he knows of many families in the Batavia area who are storing remains of their loved ones while waiting for the facility to be opened.

“Some have the cremains in their homes, some have them on a shelf at some funeral home, just waiting,” Neider said. “It creates anguish and anxiety for some of these families.”

Molly McLaughlin of Eden said she and her family have been storing the remains of her father for years while waiting for the military cemetery to be opened.

“We are terribly disappointed that the federal government fails to see the importance of providing a sacred burial location for our veterans close to their homes and families,” McLaughlin said.

Funding woes delay project

Federal officials have said they do see the importance of building the burial facility but have run into funding problems.

Because of unexpected high costs, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs now expects that the new veterans cemetery in Pembroke will not be available for burials until at least 2021, about a year later than had been forecast.

Last year, initial bids for the project came in higher than expected, which prompted the VA to rebid the project this spring, The News reported last week. The federal government has set aside $36 million for the project but now realizes it will cost about $10 million more.

The new bids are “currently under evaluation” and a contract award is expected later this year, according to Les Melnyk, spokesman for the National Cemetery Administration.

Veteran advocacy groups have been pushing for the new military cemetery for 10 years, and the slow pace of the project is frustrating to vets and their families, said Neider.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-NY, the project's longtime congressional advocate, said he will look into the funding problems.

Schumer "shares the frustration of those waiting too long to have this cemetery serve as the final resting place for their loved ones, and he will work as hard as ever to keep the VA’s feet to the fire and get this facility open with all due speed,” said the senator's spokesperson, Allison Biasotti.

Schumer and other advocates for the project noted that the nearest existing military cemetery is in Bath, about 100 miles southeast of Buffalo.

The VA struggled for years to find a suitable site for the cemetery before settling on land at the intersection of Indian Falls Road and state Route 77 in Pembroke. The site was selected because of its proximity to both Buffalo and Rochester.

Nancy Kerr said she and her family owe much to the VA because of the medical treatment the government agency gave to her father.

“From the time when my dad began to lose his memory about 10 years ago, they have bent over backwards to help us in every way possible. We really appreciate that,” Kerr said. “But we really need the government to move things along on this cemetery.”

She said her mother is not the only person who wants to see Stottele buried as a military hero. Stottele, a retired maintenance man, had six sons and daughters, 15 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.

“We all hate to think of his remains just sitting, waiting at that funeral home, for years,” she said.

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