Three weeks ago he was another of Washington's homeless, a man with no known address and no known history who had frozen to death in Lafayette Square, just across from the White House.
But in death, Jesse L. Carpenter has retrieved his past -- a past that included a family he never talked about and a Bronze Star for World War II heroism that nobody knew he had.
Today, Carpenter, 61, is scheduled for a military "honors ceremony," complete with riflemen firing volleys and a bugler sounding taps, before his ashes are placed in Arlington National Cemetery with the remains of other fallen veterans.
His life -- and death -- on the streets of Washington have been taken up as a symbol by the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV), an advocacy group for the homeless, to dramatize the plight of all homeless veterans.
"The Veterans Administration has been completely unwilling to deal with the fact that there are disabled veterans living on the streets . . . and getting absolutely nothing they need," said Mitch Snyder, director of the CCNV, in a news conference yesterday at Lafayette Square. "It's unconscionable."
To that, VA spokesman Ozzie Garza said, "We make every effort to inform them of the benefits. Sometimes we can't reach all of them, but it's not for lack of trying."
John Lam, another homeless veteran who is confined to a wheelchair, joined Snyder at the press conference to talk about Carpenter, who had been his friend for 20 years.
About two years ago, when Lam's Parkinson's disease put him in the wheelchair permanently, he and Carpenter became inseparable. Carpenter, as Lam put it, "shoved me around all the time. He was my friend."
Lam never went to shelters because they lack facilities for the handicapped and, according to Snyder, it was for that reason that both men were sleeping in the square on Dec. 5 when the temperature dropped to 34 degrees. Carpenter, who was found by a passer-by at the foot of Lam's wheelchair, died of hypothermia, a subnormal body temperature, according to authorities.
A member of CCNV helped identify Carpenter's body, and when a small story on his death appeared in an out-of-town newspaper, Carpenter's ex-wife learned about it and called the organization, according to CCNV members.
"His wife said he never quite recovered from the war," said CCNV spokeswoman Carol Fennelly. "He began drinking and as a result it tore the family apart. He left them 22 years ago, when his daughter was 10 and his son was 6 months old."
"She said he had been handsome . . . a kind and gentle man. She wanted people to understand that he wasn't always an alcoholic, someone on the streets . . . that he had a history."
The wife, who asked to remain anonymous because she is now remarried, sent Fennelly a copy of the certificate Carpenter received with his Bronze Star. It said Carpenter was awarded the medal for "braving unabating fire" to carry wounded men to an aid station on Sept. 17, 1944.
Now Carpenter's ashes will be placed in Arlington's columbarium, a vault with niches for urns that already contains the cremated remains of more than 3,300 soldiers, according to a spokesman for the cemetery.
Army spokesman Lt. Col. Hal Vogel said Carpenter "was not used and discarded by his country. He didn't have to live in the park as a vagrant." Vogel said Carpenter had been receiving a $459-a-month VA pension since 1980, and a VA spokesman said Carpenter had received outpatient treatment several times from the VA medical center in Washington.
But Snyder said for men like Carpenter, "money isn't enough. It either gets ripped off" or is used for drink. "Theoretically, if you're disciplined and together, you could survive on the monthly check . But when you're talking about someone living on the streets, they need more help."
According to Snyder, Carpenter deserves another award for refusing to leave Lam and go to a shelter. "There were two acts of heroism," he said. "One in World War II, and another the night he died in the cold in deference to his friend."