No family members claimed Vinings resident Richard Lindsay Butterfield’s remains. But on Wednesday dozens of volunteers and friends held a funeral for the Vietnam War veteran at Georgia National Cemetery, complete with a gun salute and taps. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com
Photo: Emily Haney
Photo: Emily Haney

‘Unclaimed veteran’ of Vietnam War honored at Georgia funeral service

Dozens show up at Georgia National Cemetery to say farewell

Richard Lindsay Butterfield served as a U.S. Marine in Vietnam and was haunted by his memories of the war.

Nicknamed “Butter,” he was a star high school football player in Montclair, N.J. Played linebacker at Penn State. Worked on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange before moving to Atlanta and serving as a bartender at Harrison’s on Peachtree.

He ultimately fell on hard times. When he died recently at 79, he was living frugally on Social Security benefits. No relatives stepped forward to claim his remains. He never married and had no children. Both of his parents are deceased. He had no savings.

Alerted by one of Butterfield’s longtime friends, the Veterans Affairs Department teamed up with the Marine Corps and many volunteers to pay tribute to him. On Wednesday — a clear, sun-splashed day with light blue skies — they held a funeral for him here at Georgia National Cemetery, complete with a gun salute and taps. Dozens of people — many of them strangers – showed up to observe the proceedings. Some wiped away tears.

A pair of Marines gently removed the American flag from Butterfield’s silver casket and folded it. One knelt and presented it to DeLayne Davis of Acworth, a volunteer stand-in for Butterfield’s family and a member of the Patriot Guard Riders, motorcyclists who support the U.S. military. She wore cowboy boots decorated with U.S. flags. Her long hair was tied neatly into a ponytail.

Gregory Hall, of the Georgia Memorial Park Funeral Home and Cemetery in Marietta, retrieved the flag from Davis and tucked in into a sleeve for safekeeping. Since 2000, the Dignity Memorial program that his funeral home participates in at its own expense has provided more than 3,000 no-cost burials and funeral services for homeless veterans and first responders across the nation.

Hall came into the picture after Jerry Froelich, a friend of Butterfield, could not locate any surviving relatives for the Marine and contacted the VA. A local criminal defense attorney, Froelich remembered Butterfield as a standout athlete who read voraciously.

“I think Vietnam bothered him,” Froelich said. “He had been in a battle. They sent in helicopters to evacuate. And he had to choose who to evacuate. And they evacuated those, and he stayed. They ordered him to take half the troops someplace else and the troops he had to leave got killed.”

For the last 11 years, Butterfield lived in an apartment attached to the Vinings home of his friend and fellow Marine, Steve Fuller, who owned Harrison’s. When Butterfield served as a bartender there, Fuller said, he preferred not to supervise anyone because of his experience losing fellow troops in Vietnam. He even resisted letting people bring him ice at the bar, saying he would get it himself.

“He felt responsible for some of the losses they had over there. He wasn’t. He was ordered to do what he did,” Fuller said. “But he never wanted any more responsibility for the rest of his life. In my opinion, he was very much a mental casualty of that war.”

Fuller said he found his friend dead in his bathtub. Butterfield had been ill and was having trouble maintaining his balance. The Cobb County Medical Examiner’s Office is still investigating his cause of death and would not release details.

At the start of the funeral Wednesday, David Epps, a chaplain with the Marine Corps League, summarized Butterfield’s military service, gently placing his hand on his casket and declaring: “He will, in this place, be surrounded for all time by American soldiers, sailors, airmen, Coast Guardsmen, and, yes, his fellow Marines. He will never lie alone again.”

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