Members of the “Life After Loss” group from Greeley listen
as tour guide James O’Neal Hughes speaks among the oldest graves in what now is Fort Logan National Cemetery. (All photos by Terry Frei)
DENVER — The
Fort Logan National Cemetery staff assistant was the tour guide for a “Life After Loss” group of 11 mostly senior
citizens from Greeley.
When the group met him at the cemetery’s administration building, he
was introduced as “O’Neal.”
The word was, that’s what he goes by on the job.
His head was shaved, and his goatee was graying. At the start of the tour, his dark
Fort Logan jacket was zipped just far enough to partially obscure the credentials on the end of the lanyard hanging around
his neck. His dry sense of humor was part of his narration, so the Greeley contingent supplied a laugh track throughout.
The tour’s second stop was in Section N, along Sheridan Boulevard in Fort Logan’s northwest corner. There,
O’Neal stood among the oldest graves on the 214-acre site, which date back to 1889, when Fort Logan was a new military
installation and long before its 1950 designation as a national cemetery.
He rattled off considerable general
information about the cemetery, where veterans and their spouses are buried free of charge.
he said the most visited grave in recent years is that of Navy SEAL Danny Dietz, from Littleton, who was killed in a firefight
with Taliban forces in 2005 in Afghanistan and was a prime figure in the 2014 film, “Lone Survivor.” O’Neal
also noted two posthumous Medal of Honor recipients from the Vietnam era, Major William E. Adams and First Sergeant Maximo
Yabes, also are among those buried.
“Everybody asks who’s famous here,” he told
the group. “I say everybody here is famous. You put your hand in the air, whether you were drafted or not. Spouses are
famous, too, because it’s hard on the spouse. Like I spent two years in Vietnam. I was already married. I spent some
time as a hostage in Iran and I was married. So I could imagine what my wife was going through during those times.”
Within moments, the group was climbing back into the three oversized golf carts, moving on to the next stop.
Wait. Did O’Neal just say he was a hostage in Iran?’
* * *
The guide’s real name is James O’Neal Hughes.
1979, he was an Air Force staff sergeant and intelligence assistant who was one of 65 hostages taken during the storming of
the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
Nearly 39 years later, he led the “Life After Loss” group on the
Tuesday morning tour. The contingent met at the Adamson Funeral Home in Greeley, then rode to Denver in a van. “Life
After Loss” has outings available for sign-up, and this was an appropriate setup for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend.
The tour began at one of the committal shelters.
Hughes explained Fort Logan doesn’t
have graveside services, and the ceremonies at the committal shelters are limited to 20 minutes. He also explained about 70
percent of the burials now involve cremation containers rather than caskets.
About this time as he spoke to the Greeley
tour group at Fort Logan National Cemetery, James O’Neal Hughes casually mentioned he had served in Vietnam and was
a hostage in Iran.
“When I first started here,
back when we had wooden shovels, it was only about 10 percent,” he said.
Next, at the oldest
section, Hughes first gestured in a sweeping motion and noted the wide variety of headstones there. He explained that the
carefully aligned upright white marble headstones became universal in the late 1950s. He said about 135,000 are buried or
interred at Fort Logan and the cemetery averages about 20 services a day.
Hughes also plugged the upcoming
Memorial Day ceremony on May 28 and said it takes volunteers about two-and-a-half hours to place U.S. flags at every grave
in advance of the weekend.
At the Columbarium mausoleum area, one of the newer options at Fort Logan,
Hughes ran down the possibilities for terms of endearment on headstones and the choices involving casket burials and cremations.
The only cost for veterans and their families are the services from the funeral homes involved.
nearby all-dirt area, workers had dug a hole for a cremation vault that would arrive after a service later in the day. “We
just started this section Monday,” Hughes said.
In the same area, several new headstones already
were in place and worker Gabriel Arguello was painstakingly settling the marble headstone of Air Force vet Richard W. Laugesen,
a prominent Denver attorney who died in March, into the ground, before replacing the dirt around it. The group marveled at
“I’ve set over 12,000 headstones,” he said.
The Greeley tour group visits the Columbarium.
Other new graves in the area still had temporary cards, identifying the deceased. Soon, they also will have headstones
and the grass will be replaced. Then, as time marches on, the next wave of burials will be in another section.
Hughes estimated there is enough space still available for about 30 more years of burials, and noted the imminent
opening of Pikes Peak National Cemetery in Colorado Springs should eliminate some of the pressure.
stop was the shop were the marble headstones are created.
Back at the Administration Building, Hughes
bid his farewells.
“OK, guys,” he said. “I hope I answered all your questions.”
He handed out the Fort Logan fact sheets.
“I hope this won’t contradict too much of
what I said,” he added with a smile.
Another tour was over.
Hughes shows the Greeley group the fresh hole where a cremation container soon will go. Within 60 days, an iconic white marble
headstone will mark the spot and the grass will be replaced. With Hughes, from left, are Fred Rogen, Barbara Rogen, Kenneth
Wagner and Florence Burkholder.
“I enjoy educating people
and talking to them about the services that are available here and about honoring the veteran and the spouse for their honorable
service,” Hughes said.
This is just part of his job, he explained. He has been working at Fort Logan
“I do anything from budget to administrative work,” he said.
more questions were coming, he headed them off. “I’m not much of a talker,” he said.
his two-hour tour narration, that was a curious remark. Did that mean he didn’t like to talk about Vietnam and Iran?
“I don’t like to talk about it,” he said. “I just don’t.”
though, with friendships made and gratitude from the group obvious, he at least would confirm his real name.
* * *
A New Orleans native, James O’Neal Hughes is 68 years old. He retired as an
Air Force master sergeant in 1992.
With tour guide
James O’Neal Hughes are Fred Rogen, Kenneth Wagner, Barbara Rogen, driver Richard Moore and Theresa Pineda.
In 1979, Iranian captors released Hughes and 12 other African-American or female hostages 16 days into what became
known as the Iran Hostage Crisis. The cited reason was sympathy for suppressed minorities in the U.S. While in captivity,
they were fed only bread, goat cheese and rice.
Belatedly, in August 2012, Hughes was awarded the Defense
Department’s Prisoner of War Medal in a ceremony at — where else? — Fort Logan. In an interview with Richelle
Taylor, a public affairs specialist with the National Cemetery Administration, Hughes noted he hadn’t endorsed the circumstances
of his release.
“The attempt by the Iranians to divide along gender and racial lines did not
set well with me,” he said. “Part of my mental health treatment was dealing with the guilt of leaving others behind.”
He also told Taylor he initially believed the crisis would be short-lived, perhaps ending in a few hours.
“After being searched, tied up and blindfolded, and marched out of the embassy, I understood that it was something
different,” he said. “During long periods of isolation I would have thoughts of never seeing my family again and
that I would die blindfolded and tied to a chair.”
After the release of the 13, the remaining
52 American diplomats and citizens ultimately were held for a total of 444 days, until they were released on January 20, 1981
— the day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated, succeeding Jimmy Carter as president.
of the early releases, told the Greeley group he planned to be buried at Fort Logan.
my wife, don’t spend a lot of money on me,” he said. “Cremate me. Put me in the ground. And then go find
two 30-year-olds and go on a cruise.”
Story on Greeley Tribune site