Jerry Davich: Cemetery does more than remember veterans
JERRY DAVICH May 26, 2013 4:40PM
Denise Delaney-Wrolen was pleasantly surprised that the gravestone was already in place when she visited her husband John Wrolen's grave at Calumet Park Cemetery in Merrillville, Ind. Thursday May 23, 2013. The cemetery offers a program for veterans that helps with burial arrangements. Wrolen was a U.S. Army Veteran | Stephanie Dowell~Post-Tribune
Updated: June 28, 2013 6:22AM
Denise Wrolen knelt down atop her husband’s grave and brushed off debris from his new permanent marker: “JOHN WILLIAM WROLEN — SP4 U.S. ARMY — VIETNAM.”
“I didn’t know it was put in,” she said with surprise in her voice, attempting to hold back emotions. “What a wonderful Memorial Day gift. I didn’t expect this.”
John Wrolen died March 18 at age 68. Wrolen was a 1962 Hobart High School graduate, a 36-year Gary police officer, a 26-year Methodist Hospital security guard, and a “proud Vietnam War veteran” who was heavily involved with the American Legion.
His body was buried in the spacious and scenic veterans section at Calumet Park Cemetery in Merrillville, near thousands of other vets’ gravesites.
“He would be so happy to know he’s here,” Denise said. “Calumet Park’s veteran benefits program is amazing. The only problem is that not enough veterans know about it.”
Three years ago, John Wrolen attended an American Legion commanders’ meeting to listen to guest speaker Dan Moran, a Vietnam veteran who is general manager of Calumet Park Cemetery.
“I was told that cemeteries and funeral homes in the region do almost nothing for veterans,” Moran told me last week. “Those commanders really let me have it that day. But after some research and inspection, they were right.”
For example, most funeral homes give deceased vets an American flag, which is free from the U.S. government, and they arrange for a gun salute and the playing of taps, which also is free. And although many cemeteries have a veterans section with an impressive monument to honor vets, that’s just smart business.
“But I realized that cemeteries actually do very little for the individual vet,” Moran said.
Not enough done
The next day after that meeting, Moran met with his board of directors and cemetery owner, Paul Vogel, who’s also a military vet.
They ironed out an impressive package of benefits for vets that include a free grave space, free installation of a government marker, free granite backer, and reduced pricing on a vault, casket and other funeral services. The total savings is nearly $5,000.
“That is money not being refunded to us from any outside entity or government agency,” Moran said. “We listened to veterans groups and we put together a program as a way of actually saying thank you to veterans and their families for having served this country.”
“Calumet Park put its money where its mouth was,” Moran added.
The only requirement is that vets must have been honorably discharged and can prove it with valid DD214 discharge papers.
“Paul Vogel is the person who made this program happen,” Denise said. “That meeting three years ago was a real eye opener for Paul, Dan, and the cemetery’s board of directors.”
Today, more than 1,000 vets have benefited from this program, including 559 at the time of need (a vet’s death) and roughly 650 who have pre-planned in advance.
Getting the word out
“John thought this was a wonderful program, and we couldn’t find anything like it at any other cemetery in this region,” said Denise Wrolen after she visited her husband’s grave last week. “My goal is to get the word out to other vets. I think the ball is being dropped by the American Legion and other vets groups.”
Wrolen was a 32-year member of the American Legion Post 100, serving as the First District Commander from 2000 to 2001, and the Department Northern Vice-Commander from 2011 to 2012, among other veterans groups.
John and Denise would have celebrated their sixth wedding anniversary this week. Denise is still unable to bring herself to read the online guestbook comments to her husband’s obituary in the Post-Tribune.
“He was a great asset to The American Legion 1st District and will be missed. God bless,” wrote Bernie Tiltges of Dyer.
“In loving memory of a wonderful person who dedicated himself to his family, fellow veterans, and his fellow man,” wrote Amelia Elizondo of Lake Station.
“As a former Methodist Hospital coworker, John was an outstanding individual. Years ago, I lost a nephew at age 19. Upon arrival to the scene of the incident, John Wrolen was in charge. My family, friends and I received heartfelt compassion and sympathy from him,” wrote Linda Collins-Brown of Gary.
This is probably the first time Denise has read those tributes about John. His death is still that fresh, that tender, that close to her heart. Even her home’s voice mail greeting still plays, “Hi, you’ve reached Denise and John…”
Denise, who teaches fifth grade at Evans Elementary School for the River Forest school district, drives a 2008 Ford Mustang with a front plate proudly stating, “Denise & John” with two hearts entwined.
“John often said that every vet should know about this benefits program at Calumet Park,” Denise told me. “I paid for my plot with no finance charge until it was paid off. But John’s was free. We need to get the word out to the soldiers in the trenches, so to speak.”
Calumet Park’s veterans section has enough space to go around, with only half of its 8,800 graves purchased or given away free of charge.
These savings are in addition to anything that the government might have for a vet, depending on his or her personal circumstances in accordance with the Federal Benefits for Veterans publication. (For a $5 copy of the 180-page booklet, call (866) 512-1800.)
Today, on Memorial Day, the cemetery will host its Battle of the Bulge Memorial Ceremony at 12:30 p.m. Expect a sea of American flags amid the honoring of heroes.
For vets and their families, it’s an ideal time to visit the veterans section, check out its amenities, and get more information on the benefits program for those in need.
“Veterans sacrifice so much in their life, they deserve to be honored like this at their death,” Denise said before Sunday’s annual memorial service at the cemetery.
For more info, call Calumet Park Cemetery and Funeral Chapel at 769-8803 or 736-5840 or visit www.calumetparkcemetery.com.