Jesse L. Carpenter – Sergeant, United States Army

From a contemporary press report: December 29, 1984

The silence outside Arlington National Cemetery's Columbarium was broken yesterday as a bus pulled up and more than 50 homeless men and women milled across the plaza, some mumbling and a few shouting incoherently. The group grew still when six military escorts snapped to attention, unfolding an American flag over an urn containing the ashes of Jesse L. Carpenter.

A few of the spectators cried quietly as their comrade, a man who lived on the streets for 22 years, was honored as a WWII hero. In the front row of a small cluster of chairs, Carpenter's daughter, Mildred Hamilton, clasped her brother's hand and pressed a tissue to her eyes. Behind them, the crowd of homeless men and women lowered their heads while the Rev. Vin Harwell, a Presbyterian minister, spoke: “Today we come to honor Jesse L. Carpenter, one unknown to many of us . . Jesse's story is a story of heroism and devotion to others and, at the same time, it is a story of tragedy.”

Carpenter, 61, a homeless man who froze to death in Lafayette Square three weeks ago, was honored with a full military ceremony as his ashes were placed in Arlington National Cemetery's columbarium along with those of more than 3,000 other veterans. A copy of a certificate bearing Carpenter's name, which was brought forward by Carpenter's ex-wife, indicated that he received a Bronze Star, the fourth-ranked Army award for heroism in WWII, after carrying 3 wounded men to an aid station under heavy fire in Brittany, France, on September 17, 1944. The Army has not been able to locate further records confirming that Carpenter received the Bronze Star, according to Army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Hal Vogel. Carpenter's personnel records, along with more than half-a-million others stored in an Army office building in St. Louis, were destroyed in a fire in 1973, Vogel said.

Yesterday seven riflemen fired three volleys into the mild morning air, a bugler played taps and an Army chaplain presented the carefully folded flag to Carpenter's daughter. Clustered before the columbarium were dozens of people who knew nothing of Carpenter's history, who had never heard of his Bronze Star, but who came to honor him as a friend and a symbol. Sandy Brawders, director of the House of Ruth, a women's shelter in the District of Columbia, said she met Carpenter on night late in November while on rounds of the city, carrying blankets and food to the homeless. “We talked about how the city was changing, how people didn't care anymore,” she recalled yesterday. “(Carpenter) was a philosopher.”

According to members of the Community for Creative Non-Violence, an advocacy group for the homeless, Carpenter died while he and John Lam, a homeless veteran confined to a wheelchair, spent a freezing night in Lafayette Square. They did not go to a shelter, CCNV members said, because there was none accessible to Lam's wheelchair. Carpenter's daughter and his son, James H. Carpenter, declined interviews yesterday. According to CCNV spokeswoman Carol Fennelly, who spoke with Carpenter's ex-wife, Carpenter began drinking after he returned from the war and left the family 22 years ago, when his daughter was 10 and his son was 6 months old.

After the brief military ceremony, Harwell and Snyder talked of Carpenter as a symbol, pointing to the plight of the homeless played out in 1 man's life and death. “I think it provides an opportunity to think, an opportunity to humanize the problem of the homeless,” Harwell said. “Too often, we act as if they don't have any histories.”

No high-ranking government officials attended the ceremony, and CCNV Director Mitch Snyder claimed it was indicative of the Reagan administration's attitude toward homeless people. The story of Jesse Carpenter, Snyder said, holds a message. “The message is a question; the question is, what does it say of us as a people if we allow our heroes to languish like animals on the streets?”

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