Two strangers found a soldier’s unkept grave; now it’s their mission to care for it
Three times a year, they meet at the grave of a soldier they did not know.
Retired Security Forces Senior Master Sgt. Patrick Riley and Security Forces Tech Sgt. Bruce Bistarkey of the PA Air Guard come here, to Holy Souls Cemetery in Robinson, every Memorial Day, every Veterans Day, and every Dec. 4 — the anniversary of Airman Oliver Riddle’s death.
They have come since discovering Riddle’s grave in 2002 while researching Security Forces history. They noticed then that it needed care. Weeds grew around the flat stone bearing Riddle’s name, rank and dates of birth and death; grass grew over the edges. There were no flags or wreaths.
“I don’t know if the family moved away or if they’re elderly, but we never see anything here,” Riley said Friday on the latest trip to Riddle’s grave. “I think it is our duty to remember the ultimate sacrifice our members have made.”
Riddle, from Coraopolis, was a member of the Air Force police, a precursor to the Security Forces, which was created in 1997. He died Dec. 4, 1966 in a Vietcong mortar attack on Tan Son Nhut Air Base in South Vietnam. His tour of duty began less than a week before.
“I remember being directed to the body of one of our guys,” Capt. Chuck Henry wrote on the Vietnam Security Police Association web site in 2002. “I think it was Oliver Riddle, around first light, just outside the perimeter road. … I had to stand there for a long time, to get the prayer and the crying done because I did not want the guys on the road to see their captain so close to bawling like a baby.”
Riddle’s body was returned to Pittsburgh and put to rest at Holy Souls. He was 21.
His family, if any remain, could not be reached.
Riley and Bistarkey also have tried to find relatives, with no luck. Riley believes he attended a church in Kennedy Township, because he found Riddle’s name on the church wall. But he found no one who knew him. So they come to visit him instead.
“We have a bond,” Bistarkey said. “Let’s just say that if I was laying here and I was a spirit, it would be nice to look down to see that someone remembered me.”
Bistarkey and Riley have both deployed multiple times overseas. They served together in the same Guard unit in Afghanistan in 2002.
“The Air Police was one of the first units in the military to wear a beret in 1956; it was officially adopted in 1966,” Riley said. “We are very proud of that beret, just as proud as any other unit in the military that wears one. So anyone who has been an Air Policeman, Security Policeman or Security Forces member shares that bond.”
Through historical accounts and military websites, they know of Riddle the soldier, but nothing of Riddle the person.
Doesn’t matter, they said. They’ll keep coming back, until they can’t. When that day comes, hopefully younger members of the Security Forces will take their places.
When Riley and Bistarkey come, they clean up the grave and plant fresh flags. They lay a wreath, then stand side-by-side and salute Oliver Riddle. They tell him: We remember you. We won’t forget.
“Look around,” Riley said, motioning to rows of tombstones. “The grass just grows around all of them. Some are kept up and some aren’t. There are hundreds of them. And every one of them has a story.”