Friends of a homeless Vietnam veteran who died last year after living for decades in the Skid Row neighborhood organized a brief military memorial for him Thursday on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall.
Neil Schaffer, whose friends said he fell through the cracks of society but lived a quiet, peaceful life, died of cancer last Aug. 19 in a room at the Madison Hotel.
Some Skid Row residents raised the funds for Schaffer’s cremation, and the ceremony included the release of a dove.
Retired U.S. Air Force Chaplain Doc Cohen, who oversaw the ceremony, said Schaffer served in the military as a carpenter from 1971 to 1973 before being honorably discharged.
“And then it all went downhill. And he struggled. He tried, he got a job, he lost a job, whatever he could do, it wasn’t enough, and he died on the streets right here in L.A.,” Cohen said.
Another ceremony will be held at Los Angeles National Cemetery on March 31, Cohen said.
The Los Angeles National Cemetery has been closed to new interments of servicemen for decades, but Schaffer’s ashes will among the first interred in a columbarium that is opening up there this summer, Cohen said.
Eriq Moreno was one of the friends of Schaffer who helped organize the City Hall service. Although he has a home and career now, Moreno said he met Schaffer about 17 years ago in Skid Row when he was homeless.
“He offered me shelter, and he became a really close friend and a father figure mostly, because I never had one,” Moreno said. “When his situation with his health got worse, I knew I had to be there all the way, and I was, and he kind of left me in charge of his arrangements. He made a good change in the world and I just wanted someone to acknowledge that.”
Moreno said that Shaeffer helped him get out of homelessness, but struggled to explain why Shaeffer could not do the same for himself.
“I just think he had a lot of — I don’t know — roadblocks with what he wanted to do and I don’t know if he knew how to do it,” Moreno said. “But at the same time he was a good guy. He should have been able to. I just kind of helped him live a better and happier life.”
Cohen said that neither he nor the coroner’s office were unable to locate any of Shaffer’s relatives.
“We went through the records, we couldn’t find anything. All we know is he came from … Camden, New Jersey. We couldn’t find a relative, we couldn’t find people back there that knew him, but at least we did this and we will again on the 31st,” Cohen said, adding that about 400 veterans from the Patriot Guard Riders are expected to attend the ceremony at the Los Angeles National Cemetery.
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