Veterans building caskets for fellow Veterans: "Along the Way"

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It is a show of respect that endures even beyond a veteran's final breath; veterans making caskets and urns for fellow veterans and their spouses.
The work is done through "Veteran's Home Interment": a small non-profit corporation.

Down in Hot Springs, just across campus from the new Michael J Fitzmaurice State Veteran's home, sits the old Men's Dormitory. Nobody lives there anymore, but there's still plenty of life up on the 3rd floor.

"This is primarily where we make the most sawdust," says Darrell Custer of Veterans Home Interment.

That's where a small crew of volunteers builds caskets and urns by hand, and by small crew, we mean very small.

"I worked for pretty near 2 years by myself, and like I say I'm gonna be 83 years old in June and it was a big job but just since Joe's come on board, it's made my job 100 percent easier," says Darrell Custer.

Now, it's a crew of 2. Darrell Custer, an Army Veteran, was joined about 9 months ago by 64 year old Marine Corps Veteran Joe Messinio.

"It takes us about 4 hours to build a casket and then it takes 4 days to finish it., the sanding, the stain and the clear coat that we put on, it takes 4 days for application and drying between coats, so it takes a week to build a casket," Custer tells us.

67 year old Air Force Veteran Ralph Sowder volunteers on the administrative side of the organization.
Veterans Home Interment, or VHI was started in Hot Springs in 1999 by a veteran who has since passed away, but his goal lives on.

"He felt that every veteran and spouse deserved a good nice vessel to be buried in. Ever since then we've felt the exact same way," Ralph Sowder says. .

Their finished caskets are beautiful, and they're available to any South Dakota Veteran, who has other than a bad conduct discharge, and their spouse.

"We have 5 ladies that sew the linings for these caskets.," Custer says in regards to the beautiful fabric work on the caskets. He goes on to say, "Alot of accolades go to our ladies who sew these liners, that takes quite a craft."

VHI rents space on the third floor for construction and storage.
One of the rooms on the 3rd floor is used for the sewing work.
It's essential to the finished look of the caskets.
Veterans can also choose an urn.

"I do all the urns and they're also made of 3 quarter inch birch plywood and trimmed in oak," says Custer.

He also makes double urns for couples who want their ashes together.

Donations are vital to this organization.
"We depend solely on donations for our moneystream," says Custer.

There's a suggested donation of 350 dollars for a casket, or 125 dollars for an urn.
However, if a veteran or spouse can't afford to donate, the vessel is given to them for free.

"The people that we provide this service to, risked their lives, limbs, to make sure that we had the opportunity to live a free life here in America," Custer says.

The caskets are built completely out of 3 quarter inch plywood, hard work, and donations.
They buy black iron handles from a local manufacturer and spray paint them gold for the sides of the caskets. They do what they can with what they have.
Many of their vessels end up at the Black Hills National Cemetery in Sturgis.

There's also quite a few in the State Veteran's Home Cemetery, open only to those who have lived in the home.

"Veterans buried in here from clear back in the Civil War," Custer says regarding how long this cemetery has been in use.

There's a lot of history at the State Veteran's Home Cemetery.
However, one particular headstone, means a lot to Darrell Custer.

"This is my wife's plot and she's buried in one of the urns from our program, that I constructed for her," Custer says as he shows us her headstone.

On a windy afternoon, he explains that not only did he build her urn, he's already built his own.

"I'm very thankful for the years that she gave me of her life, that what that reminds me of,the good times that she showed me for 51 years," Custer says in regards to his wife.

And when it's his time, he will join her here.

He shows us where he will be buried saying, "Right there, right there behind her and my name is already on the tombstone so."

For now he lives in the Veteran's Home, and volunteers on the 3rd floor of the old Men's Dorm. Someday, he will move to a cemetery plot with a great view of the hills, and a reunion with his wife of 51 years.

Ralph Sowder says he and his wife have already reserved their caskets.
And, Joe Messinio says he's already put in an application for his.
VHI also has a location over in Sioux Falls.
And they have a Board of Directors overseeing the organization, Darrell is the President.

If you've met someone cool "Along the Way" please call us or e-mail me at stevel@blackhillsfox.com to let us know.