Veteran Honored Internment Program provides a final tribute

Photo by Charity Maness/Fall River County Herald Star

Joe Messinio of Oelrichs, retired USMC, stands by one of the completed coffins he built as part of the Veteran Honored Internment program at the Michael J. Fitzmaurice State Veterans Home.


By Charity Maness

HOT SPRINGS – The Veteran Honored Internment (VHI) program began more than 20 years ago with a vision to honor veterans by four committed people – Paul Redfield, Edwin Madigan, Peggy Buckwheat and Sally Madigan – and continues today under the caring and watchful eyes of Joe Messinio, USMC, and Darrell Custer, US Army.

VHI is a program offered to all honorably discharged veterans in need of a final resting casket or urn made for veterans by veterans.

“I do this because I want to help veterans and their families in their time of need,” said Messinio of his volunteer carpentry work. 

“Every veteran is entitled to a decent burial and send off as best as we can help them,” said Custer. 

Each casket it carefully made from birch plywood, with each part an integral piece of the puzzle. 

While the tops and bottom both remain flat, the sides must be curved with care to a precise shape to create a smooth bowed side.  

Currently, Messinio and Custer are the only VHI volunteer carpenters with the program, but are always looking for more to help.

“It’s a big commitment,” said Messinio, “you have to ask yourself if you really want to do this.”

But both men say the rewards far outweigh the work commitment. 

“Just knowing the families are seeing their veterans taken care of in their final days,” said Messinio of his desire to continue as long as he is able. 

While Custer reiterated that statement he also added, “It’s been a blessing to me, it keeps my head and hands busy while helping my fellow veterans.”

Recently, Custer’s health took a downward turn leaving him unable to work in the shop, yet he stays active on the board leaving Messinio, with the aid of his wife Dottie, crafting urns and caskets.

While the need for a carpenter in great, Messinio said, “Even help moving the caskets that have already been made to our trailer so we can transport them would be a help.”

After caskets and urns are loaded into the trailer the husband and wife team deliver them to locations West River such as Spearfish, Rapid City, Pierre and more. Making and delivering between 10 and 30 per month.

“We do ask for a donation,” said Custer, $350 for a casket and $125 for an urn, “but if a veteran is in need we will supply it at no cost.” No qualified veteran will be denied a vessel due to inability to donate. 

The requested donation covers only the cost of materials.

Additions can be made to the burial vessels of service specific emblems for an added cost, yet all come with a beautiful finish, a fitted handmade liner, brasslike pallbearer handles and a two piece lid allowing for open or closed viewing. Each finished vessel bears a brass plaque which reads, ‘Made for a Veteran by Veterans’.

Volunteer seamstresses Jill Sandine, Marilyn Varick and Rita Bell make the linings of white satin and patriotic trims in-house.

“I wanted to do something for the veterans,” said Sandine, her statement agreed upon by all.

“It’s also fun,” said Bell as she and the others enjoy each other’s company as well as the work they complete from the heart. Undaunted by the 6 floor hike to their sewing room and lack of heat the women all hope to continue as long as they are able.

If you would like to volunteer or want more information about the program contact Joe Messinio at 605-535-2214 or visit the VHI website at

Fall River County Herald Star

EDGEMONT OFFICE: 410 2nd Avenue   Edgemont, SD 57735-0660 | 605.662.7201
HOT SPRINGS OFFICE: 334 S. Chicago St.  Hot Springs, SD 57747 | 605.745.3930
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