A Somber Homecoming

Estelle Fields, right, accepts the folded flag from the coffin of her son; Alonzo Emerson Fields, Jr., during his burial with full military honors at St. Mary's Cemetery in New London Sunday, January 18, 1994. Fields, who had served as a U.S. Navy corpsman in Vietnam, died homeless on the streets of Washington, D.C. despite having a pension from his naval career. Fields was a 1962 graduate of Fitch High School.

Going back into the nostalgia vault I found a newspaper clipping from January 17, 1994 and immediately had to find the original negatives from the assignment.

I was just six-months into my job here at The Day, still working primarily as a night photo editor, when the phone rang one evening. On the line was none other than Michel DuCille, the photo editor at the Washington Post. I might have been a a little awestruck, his work and the work of his staff was regular fodder for the inspiration wall of a young photojournalist.

DuCille was looking for a photographer for an assignment the next day and I, being no fool, expressed my interest even before I'd determined if my employer was okay with my taking outside work.

The assignment was the burial with full military honors of a Vietnam war veteran who had died in D.C. a week earlier. The Post had a reporter who had written the story, but they only had a family handout of the man from 30-years prior.

A conversation ensued, first between me and The Day's photo editor Tom Toth and then between Tom and Michel. A deal was struck. The Day would allow me to take the assignment and The Post would let The Day also run the photo.

The sad story, which I cannot like off the post's web site because it was long before even the Washington Post had a web site, told us of Alonzo Fields, Jr., a 1962 graduate of Fitch High School in Groton who joined the navy, became a corpsman and helped set-up mobile hospitals in Vietnam. He retired with the rank of chief petty officer in 1982 and that was when his family lost track of him.

His mother, Estelle Fields, told the Post that the family lost contact with him around that time. They would hear from him from time to time as he bounced through some jobs. He did eventually start to get his pension and VA benefits and took classes as George Washington University, but still, by the mid-1980's he was homeless on the streets of Washington, D.C. and in January of 1994 he was found dead in his tent across from the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

The homeless there knew Fields as "Doc" for his medical knowledge and willingness to help them. He was active pushing for better help for the homeless and spent some time with a social service agency in the city.

So, there I was, standing across the snow-covered frozen ground at St. Mary's cemetery in New London as an honor guard of Navy sailors acted as pallbearers, a rifle team fired off a volley and the folded flag was presented to Field's mother at the graveside.

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