A Final Act of Service

by Jul 24, 2023Around Town, North Brunswick

The Veterans Memorial Reef buries veterans at sea in aquatic urns that benefit the state’s artificial reef program.

In a May 20 ceremony at Battleship Park in Wilmington, the founder of Veterans Memorial Reef suggested that deceased Military Veterans could still perform one last act of service to others.

“These fallen heroes are about to continue their duty to their nation,” said Veterans Memorial Reef (VMR) Founder Thomas Marcinowski. “By placing their ashes on an artificial reef off the coast of Wilmington, their placement will provide an augmentation to increase our dwindling ecosystem.”

Marcinowski, a retired U.S. Army Major, had an unusual idea that is taking hold. The ashes of Veterans are placed inside an aquatic urn, encased in a marker with an indelible plaque, then placed, facing sunrise, on an artificial reef.

Brunswick NC Veteran Reef Launch

He and fellow servicemen Joe Irrera and Alex Cupernall launched the nonprofit Veterans Memorial Reef in 2019. VMR was granted access to artificial reef AR-372 by the North Carolina Department of Marine Fisheries (NCDMF) and began laying Veterans to rest in 2019. Twenty-three remains have been placed on AR-372. Marcinowski hopes to place nearly 2,000 Veteran remains on the artificial reef, which is located on a 160-acre site about 5 miles out from Carolina Beach.

“The state guys (NCDMF) have been great, they want to see this thing succeed,” Marcinowski said. “If we start expanding, we estimate we can get 2,000 Veterans on that reef site. They will help us expand that site or create a new reef.”

The organization usually holds memorial services around Armed Forces Day, the third Saturday in May. The memorial process is typically a three-day event. First family members place the Veteran’s remains in an aluminum aquatic urn. Then they can attach mementos or leave handprints in the wet cement of the outer marker.

On day two, a ceremony is held in which full military honors are rendered for each Veteran, usually at Wilmington’s Battleship Park, with a flag detail, a rifle detail if warranted and a bugler to play “Taps.”

Launch Veteran Reef Brunswick NC

On a third day, family members are invited to take a charter boat out to the burial site, meeting up with a barge carrying the markers. Another short observance is held, allowing family to say a final farewell as the 1,200 lb. markers are placed on the reef. The sea dedication can take one to three hours. There are a couple of reasons that sea burials are worthwhile.

“Part of the rationale is it is eco-friendly,” Irrera, president of VMR, said. “An artificial reef attracts marine habitat and combats erosion. Also, we have four national cemeteries in North Carolina and five state cemeteries for Veterans. They are filling up. Some are not accepting more burials. This is another alternative to alleviate the strain on land burials.”

Another perk of the sea burial, aside from its uniqueness, is the cost is much lower than a typical funeral.

Each marker is also given a geographic coordinate so the family can visit, fish or dive near their loved one’s final resting place. Since the first burials in 2021, there are now 20 Veterans, two spouses and one daughter buried on the reef. One of the 20 includes a service canine, Felix Bigalke, who served in the Coast Guard special operations.  Marine Special Operations divers out of Camp Lejeune have repositioned nine of 15 markers to face east, “so the sun rises on that Veteran every morning,” Marcinowski said.

US Coast Guard Veteran Reef Launch

In the May 2023 ceremony, five Veterans and their families were honored. A 21-gun salute, flag ceremonies, “Taps” on trumpet and “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes were performed in memory of Col. Douglas Beach, U.S. Army; Specialist James Bloodworth Jr., U.S. Army; Private First Class Ethan Eldridge, U.S. Marine Corp; Gerald Lardner, Machinist 3rd Class, U.S. Navy; and Private First Class Robert Rosthauser, U.S. Army.

Rosthauser’s daughter, Margaret “Peggy” Rosthauser, passed away one week prior to the ceremony, and her remains were also interred with her father’s marker. She had served in Veteran’s Affairs for 30 years. Each marker can hold two sets of remains and will often be the final resting place of a Veteran and his or her spouse.

Family member Scott Rosthauser said that his father was a proud Veteran and would have loved the entire ceremony, especially hearing “Taps” played. The sea dedication was delayed a few days due to rough weather.

“The trip out to the reef was pretty pleasant,” Scott Rosthauser said. “The charter boat stays some distance from the barge for safety reasons. They want to be able to give you a view of the barge as it lowers the monuments, so they have to keep circling it since we are out in open water and everything keeps moving.”

He described the ceremony as touching. “Each family is brought to the front of the boat,” he said. “I put flowers in for my sister and my father, I said a silent prayer and it was very meaningful.”

The barge carrying the remains of the servicemen was a retiring buoy tender out of Oak Island, the Bayberry. The U.S. Coast Guard saved the reef internment for the ship’s final mission, to honor those who served.

Wilmington dignitaries, groups such as Combat Vets Association, family and military supporters attended the most recent public ceremony at Battleship Park, at the foot of the USS North Carolina. Irrera weaved in several patriotic remarks to denote the sacrifices that each of the deceased Veterans made as well as their families and to those Veterans who were attending the ceremony.

Veteran Reef Launch Brunswick NC

He quoted from the Bible, “John 15:13 states that no greater love hath a man than to lay down his life for his friends.” He also likened the Veterans to patriot Nathan Hale, quoting his famous line from September 22, 1776: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” Marcinowski asked attendees to reflect on this motto, “Those who served continue to serve.”

A service member from any military branch who honorably served the United States is eligible for the Veterans Memorial Reef program. VMR verifies eligibility by reviewing a DD214, the document that provides proof of military service and cites any certifications and awards granted.

Want to know more?
More details about events and memorials are available on the Veterans Memorial Reef at veteransmemorialreef.net and facebook.com/veteransmemorialreef

Photography by Bill Ritenour