Marine Corps League and islanders unite to honor veteran’s last wishes

South Whidbey’s Marine Corps League aims to help veterans in need, and it doesn’t matter what branch of the military they served, or whether the veteran is alive.

When one case of fulfilling a deceased Navy veteran’s wishes became complicated, members of the Richard “Buck” Francisco Marine Corps League Detachment 1451 stepped in.

Dennis Phillips, vice commandant for the detachment, said he learned of the predicament from the county Veteran Resource Coordinator Cynthia Besaw.

Besaw said she heard about Oak Harbor resident John Roberts Hemphill’s passing through one of his family friends, she said. Hemphill had asked to be cremated after his passing, something his limited surviving family couldn’t afford.

However, Besaw said her program isn’t able to provide financial assistance to friends of a veteran, only families.

“I wanted to make sure that they were still taken care of, so I contacted Dennis Phillips,” she said.

Though it performs ceremonies at funerals, Phillips said, it’s uncommon for the Marine Corps League to help monetarily. Hemphill’s only surviving family member that could be contacted was his sister Martha Hemphill. She lives in California on a fixed income and couldn’t afford cremation with the $300 provided by the Veteran’s Administration.

“No veteran should be put to rest without as much help as possible to make sure his last wishes are granted,” Phillips said.

League Commandant Bob Gabelein headed the effort to track down funds to cover the $1,185 cost.

Gabelein said South Whidbey’s American Legion Post 141 stepped in to donate much of the money needed to fill the gap.

Many members of the Marine Corps League offered to donate as well, despite no one having known Hemphill personally.

“I think one of our missions is just to reach out to all veterans to honor them as much as we can,” Gabelein said.

Almost every dollar, except for the $300 provided by the VA, came from South Whidbey individuals and organizations, he said.

Hemphill had been honorably discharged from the Navy and lived in Oak Harbor for 14 years. Phillips said before the veteran passed away, Hemphill asked for his ashes to be sprinkled near one of Whidbey Island’s beaches.

Besaw said she spoke to Hemphill’s sister afterward, who expressed her gratitude at the league’s efforts.

“If it wasn’t for people there being so kind and helpful and Dennis Phillips being able to come through like that,” she told Besaw, “I don’t know what I would have done.”