- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 11, 2014

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - The 60-year-old retired Marine Corps helicopter mechanic had no close family and lived alone in Santa Fe. He died alone, too, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

But strangers, some touched by what they found in Eloy Timothy Tafoya’s apartment, came together to organize a burial with military honors.

Tafoya was last been seen on Dec. 31. He was found dead in his apartment on Jan. 23 after he hadn’t paid his rent or picked up his mail, the Santa Fe New Mexican (https://bit.ly/1aQN7AP ) reported.

The apartment was filled with memorabilia from Tafoya’s 20-year Marine Corps career. His passport, military ID, driver’s license and Social Security card were arranged carefully on a small table draped in black cloth.

In the center of the table was a clipping of a 2013 newspaper story with the headline, “Program ensures that no veteran ‘dies alone.’ “

“The way it was displayed, you could tell that (his military service) was his pride,” said Joe Chavez, an employee of a company that cleaned the apartment after Tafoya’s apartment was removed.

“It hit close to home,” said Chavez, a self-described “military brat” whose father and stepfather served in the armed services.

It’s heartbreaking that Tafoya had been dead for weeks and nobody knew he had taken his life, Chavez said.

Chavez and several co-workers, a funeral home employee and a police chaplain are among those who organized a burial Tuesday afternoon burial at the Santa Fe National Cemetery.

A note that Tafoya left for the apartment manager said simply: “Trash it, sell it, there is no one to claim it.”

But the medical examiner found a cousin, Anita Sweeney, to claim Tafoya’s body. Tafoya’s parents died before he turned 18, and he and his wife divorced without having any children, Sweeney said.

Tafoya had cut all ties with family about 15 years ago, said Sweeney, whose parents had allowed Tafoya to live in a family compound for a few years.

“He wrote them a letter saying he didn’t want anything to do with family,” Sweeney said, “and he moved to the apartment . where they found him, and nobody ever heard from him again.”

When Sweeney went to her cousin’s apartment to deal with his belongings, she saw a message in how he had arranged his belongings before taking his own life. “All his life with the Marines was on all the walls in the living room, the dining room, the bedroom,” she said.

Sweeney began to make arrangements for his burial but she reconsidered after seeing the newspaper clipping about the program that arranges military funerals for indigent and homeless veterans.

“With the article so prominently displayed . I felt like that was him saying, ‘I’m a forgotten hero. This is what I want,’ ” she said. “My feeling was that he didn’t want family involved, and he wanted to go in this way.”

In order for Tafoya to qualify to be buried through the Forgotten Heroes program, he needed to be homeless or unclaimed, Sweeney said. “So I unclaimed him,” she said.

But when Chavez and a funeral home employee learned that Tafoya’s cremated remains might sit in storage for two years before internment, they decided to arrange a funeral themselves.

“I felt it was my duty to honor his last wishes,” Chavez said. “So my boss said, ‘Let’s do this, we’ll make sure this gentleman gets what he deserves.’ “

Santa Fe Police Department chaplain Jose Villegas said Tafoya was a stranger to him. “But I know he is a veteran, a Marine, like me, and Marines are taught never to leave their dead,” Villegas said.

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