CLEVELAND – Call Patrick Cleary a hero and he’ll drop his head, close his eyes and holler an anguished “NO!”
Then, the Army veteran, who has served as a volunteer at the Ohio Western Reserve National Cemetery in Rittman since it opened in 2000, will explain his aversion to that tag.
“I was a Cold War vet. I didn’t do nothing. I never saw any combat. Nobody shot at me, and I never shot at anybody,” said Cleary, 77, of Cleveland.
“Let’s just say that I’m a dedicated volunteer who realizes I’ve lived a charmed life right up to now,” he added. “You should be talking to the mothers and fathers of those guys who are brought back in bags. Those are the heroes. I’m no hero”
But his military service still means enough to this son of a World War I doughboy to do whatever he can to ease a family’s burden in burying a veteran. So far, that effort has involved some 450 trips to spend 4,099 hours at the cemetery, racking up 36,000 miles on his six-year-old Mustang and burning more than $8,000 in gas.
Cleary is among about 50 volunteers, all veterans or their spouses, augmenting the cemetery’s 13-person staff, according to Mark Polen, who handles program support for the cemetery.
“We could not even begin to do what we do without them,” he added. “These people come out in the deepest, darkest depths of winter and don’t complain. They do it because they care, they understand why we’re here, and because they think it’s important to show respect to their fellow veterans.”
Cleary’s own service started when he volunteered for the draft in 1955 after graduating from West Technical High School and wound up serving as an Army Signal Corps cryptographer – coding and decoding messages.
One of the most memorable messages came across his desk in early November 1956, when Russian tanks rolled into Budapest, Hungary. “That was an exciting thing,” Cleary recalled. “I knew about it before the president.”
After his stint with the active-duty Army and Reserves, Cleary spent 38 years working as a communications technician with AT&T. He and his wife, Mary, raised four children.
When a stroke temporarily sidelined a guy who concedes to a lingering love of the Army and a passion for keeping busy, he answered a newspaper ad seeking volunteers at the new Ohio Western Reserve National Cemetery.
Cleary said his first eight years were spent largely on office work, helping families get the necessary documentation for veteran burials and working with area funeral directors to schedule arrangements.
He joked that the cemetery’s first director advised him, “Patrick, as long as you don’t bury anybody in the parking lot, just do your thing.”
He also helped families choose inscriptions for their government-provided headstone. One request was for “No Regrets” on the marker. Cleary recalled, “I thought, ‘What does he mean, “No Regrets”? Coming or going?’ So I just wrote it up. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that it was a great life.”
Cleary later transferred to duty at the cemetery’s information booth at the cemetery entrance.
“I do what I can to put people at ease,” he said. “I know it helps, because a lot of them come into this vast cemetery and don’t know what it is they’re supposed to do."
At times, Cleary’s duty can be sad and sobering when he knows one of the vets being buried. That once included his own brother.
But the rewards are ample compensation, according to Cleary, who said the volunteer work helped him get through anxiety and depression while recovering from his stroke. And more.
“The thing about the cemetery, it gives me back more than I could ever possibly give it,” Cleary said. He explained that it gives him “the feeling of helping somebody in their moment of ultimate distress, helping them get to a certain place in dealing with this terrible sorrow.”
Not hero material – in his own eyes.
Yet perhaps heroic enough to those who rely on Cleary at a time when it matters most.