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Junked car yields cremated remains of military serviceman

STEVE HEFFERNAN OF Bristol displays identification papers, a U.S. flag and a box containing the remains of a Vietnam War era veteran that were found in the trunk of an abandoned car that ended up in a Pittsford scrapyard last year. Heffernan, co-owner of that scrapyard and a longtime Vermont Air Guard member, has been working to get the remains of Allan Moch a proper military burial. Independent photo/John Flowers

BRISTOL — Anywhere from six to 15 abandoned vehicles roll into GHR Metal Recycling’s Pittsford scrapyard every day. Justin Grassano is one of five co-owners of the Bristol-headquartered business that operates three facilities where discarded metal is pulverized and sold for scrap value.

Grassano has grown accustomed to finding a variety of items, ranging from garbage to new cellphones, squirreled away in vehicles making their last road trip into the gaping maw of a crusher.

But nothing could have prepared him for what he’d discover in a vehicle that made its way into the scrapyard this past spring.

Upon popping the trunk of the nondescript car, Grassano’s eyes quickly fixed on a tightly folded American flag.

“I said, ‘I can’t let this go (to the crusher),” he recalled.

While removing the flag, he discovered it’d been concealing a simple wooden box bearing the names “Allan G. Moch” and “Claremont Crematorium.”

It was at this point that Grassano knew he was staring at the mortal remains of a man who had been unceremoniously secreted in the trunk of an abandoned car that was mere minutes from being squashed into oblivion.

Grassano continued to search the car and found identification cards and other documents that added a new dimension to Allan Moch’s identity; he was a Vietnam War-era U.S. Army veteran, a staff sergeant.

Grassano knew there had to be much more to the story. What had this man done for a living? Did he have any family? Where had he resided, and what had led to the storage of his ashes in the trunk of an abandoned car?

And while Grassano wasn’t sure where Moch’s story began, he had a good idea about how it should end: With burial at a military cemetery.

Fortunately, Grassano didn’t have to look far for someone to take up Moch’s cause. Steve Heffernan, another GHR co-owner, is a master sergeant with the Vermont Air Guard. He’s logged 31 years of service, including two tours in Afghanistan.

Heffernan was more than happy to take Moch’s cause under his wing.

“Being a veteran, it’s our duty — no matter what the person became before or after being in the service — to be buried with honor at a service members’ cemetery, such as the one in Randolph,” Heffernan said. “I took it on because of being a service person myself, and because the man served our country. He deserves an honorable burial.”

So Allan, as he is simply referred to by the GHR crew, was temporarily stationed on a shelf in the Bristol workshop of Heffernan Inspection & Repair Service (HIRS) — another business in which Steve has a stake.

Heffernan poured over Allan’s death certificate and ID cards to glean some rudimentary information about his deceased protégé. 

Moch was a resident of Bellows Falls and was an auto repairman. He died of heart disease on Sept. 25, 2017, at age 71. As evidenced by his driver’s license photo, Allan was clearly proud of his long, bushy gray beard. It anchors a gaunt face punctuated by two narrow eye slits capped by dark eyebrows.

Turns out Allan would have felt at home in his new digs in life or death.

“It’s kind of fitting that his profession was ‘auto mechanic,’” Heffernan said with a smile, noting his current digs in a repair shop. “He’s come onto the payroll.”

Allan looks like he could tell a tale or two in his day, but he can’t anymore. He needs people like Heffernan to speak for him. So with Allan situated on his new perch, Heffernan placed phone calls to personnel at Vermont’s office of Veteran Affairs (VA) in Montpelier.

The initial response last year was encouraging.

“They said, ‘We need to take care of this,’” Heffernan said.

“I honestly thought this was going to be an easy process, to call and say, ‘I’ve got this man’s remains, he served, we have verification documents,’ and it would be done.”

Sadly, days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months, with no update from the VA on how to send Allan Moch off to his great reward.

THESE IDENTIFICATION CARDS and death certificate accompanied an American flag and the cremated remains of U.S. Army veteran Allan Moch, found in the trunk of a vehicle dropped off at a Pittsford scrapyard co-owned by Bristol’s Steve Heffernan.
Independent photo/John Flowers

SEARCH FOR FAMILY

Then, early last month — around a year after Allan had been sprung from his car trunk — Heffernan revisited his fellow veteran’s case with the VA, this time through an email exchange with veterans advocate Sarah Quigley.

Quigley found Allan’s DD Form 214 — a document confirming his military service — but had no luck reaching any of his family members. Quigley had established the veteran had a son, a daughter and an ex-wife.

“Their listed phone numbers are disconnected,” Quigley wrote to Heffernan in an April 4, 2023, email. “I haven’t forgotten about the remains; I’m still trying to figure out how to get ahold of the family.”

And there’s the rub — a funeral home can’t claim Allan’s remains without a next-of-kin’s permission, Quigley noted.

It’s been a frustrating stalemate. Allan is having quite the run of bad luck during his afterlife.

“Our country has all the documentation he’s needed to give him a serviceman’s burial. And why it’s not happening, I don’t understand. Even if he doesn’t have any family, a fellow serviceman ends up with his remains, goes through the correct channels and it’s still in limbo,” Heffernan said. “It’s disheartening.”

The Independent reached out to Tom Scanlon, adjutant of Middlebury American Legion Post 27 and current commander of the Vermont American Legion. Scanlon said he’s aware of the rule requiring next of kin to confer remains to a funeral home, but added this was the first he’d ever heard of a veteran’s ashes being caught in a bureaucratic holding pattern.

He said he’d look into some possible solutions, including having a veteran like Heffernan apply through the courts to become conservator of Moch’s remains — which would then give that person the legal right (in the absence of next of kin) to initiate funeral proceedings.

In the meantime, Scanlon hopes a Moch relative surfaces to go to bat for the deceased veteran, who might have confided specific wishes for his eventual burial. And perhaps that relative could shed more light on Allan Moch’s life, military service and how he wound up in a scrapyard.

“I bet he was just forgotten — which is terrible,” Scanlon said.

Until his fate is sorted out, Allan will continue to wait patiently on his perch at HIRS in Bristol.

“It’s a mystery as to what brought him to our scrapyard. But it’s time to get him a proper burial,” Heffernan said.

A proper burial is a nation’s promise to its veterans, and Heffernan is reminded of it each time he walks past Allan’s urn.

“We’ll get you there, eventually,” he assures him.

Editor’s note: Steve Heffernan is the brother-in-law of reporter John Flowers.

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