Jim Goetcheus’ family thought he had nine lives.
As a child, he was locked in a refrigerator for hours, and he was trapped in a collapsed cave. He escaped both.
As a career military officer in the Army, he was wounded in combat, and he was run over by a 5,000-pound truck. He survived both.
As a retired veteran, he underwent quadruple bypass surgery, and he battled stage 4 melanoma. He recovered from both.
They called him the Miracle Man, the Iron Man — the man who couldn’t die.
On Sept. 9, Cyndi Goetcheus got a call. Her father had suffered a stroke.
She, her younger sister, Susan, and brother, Scott, grappled with how to get to their father where he lived in Florida. She was in Kill Devil Hills. Scott, who lives in Costa Rica, was staying with Susan in Raleigh. The oldest, JR, was in Colorado and couldn’t travel due to COVID-19.
At the time, the doctors were hopeful, as Jim was awake and talking. He urged them not to rush to be with him, for COVID-19 made traveling tricky and work schedules weren’t on their sides. He was the man who couldn’t die. They had time. They’d get to him eventually.
On Sept. 21, the three piled into their car and headed for Port Orange, Fla. On the way, Susan got a call.
He had another stroke.
This stroke was massive — more than even the Miracle Man could take. They made it to Florida, but it was too late. After several days of tests, the doctors told the family he would never wake up. His children went home, and Jim Goetcheus died Sept. 26, 2020, at the age of 85.
“I have to remind myself that he’s really gone,” Susan said. “I just left him in the hospital that day. And he was alive. And it seemed that he could’ve come back.”
Waiting for a funeral
Jim Goetcheus served as a career military officer for more than 20 years, including two tours in Vietnam where he earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. He wanted to be cremated and put to rest at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., to be honored and remembered for his service.
But Jim Goetcheus died six months ago. His family is still waiting for a funeral.
And they could be waiting six more months.
Arlington Cemetery officials have given the family only an estimated service date within September or October 2021 — at least a year after his death. The waitlist for Arlington is historically long, as funeral services typically take months to plan.
But as of late, service eligibility has opened up more than ever, and COVID-19 precautions necessitate even more planning.
For his loved ones, closure is further and further out of reach.
“There’s a reason that as humans, we have funerals,” Susan said. “They provide something for us emotionally. For me, it drags it out.”
Arlington Cemetery officials didn’t respond to several requests for comments.
A fierce determination
Jim Goetcheus stood, munching on a piece of fruit in the jungle of Vietnam, as he waited for his assignment on that November day in 1964. It was just 12 days into his first tour.
He was agitated, for he was ordered to fly the transport helicopter along the same route he had each day before. He knew the enemy was watching. Flying the same missions on a regular basis — they were like sitting ducks.
He and his co-pilot followed orders. But he was right.
The enemy was watching.
Suddenly, bullets ricocheted from wall to wall, entering and exiting his arm multiple times. The co-pilot was able to land the helicopter.
“There were medics there that immediately shot him with morphine,” Cyndi said. “They said that they were going to take his arm right then and there, just chop it off. He was like, no, absolutely not, that’s not gonna happen.”
Jim Goetcheus was a determined man. Born in Martinsville, Indiana, he was the oldest of seven boys. The family was poor. His father was an alcoholic, who held odd jobs in restaurants, and his mother was emotionally absent. They moved around a lot, unable to afford the same place for long.
As the oldest child, Goetcheus stepped in as the adult, bearing the financial weight and acting as caretaker of his brothers. At 11 years old, he got his first job sweeping the floors at the Candy Kitchen. He studied hard in school and earned a golf scholarship to Purdue. But the scholarship only lasted a year, and he didn’t have the money to continue through on his own.
Struggling financially and committed to supporting his family, he joined the military.
Goetcheus was terrified of heights, but he knew that being a pilot would earn him the best paycheck. He decided to face his fears and go to flight school.
“He told stories about having to work his way up on the high diving board to be able to even jump off the high dive,” Cyndi said. “He didn’t think he was going to make it on his first day when he had to go up in a helicopter, and he finally bit the bullet and went for it.”
This determination did not waver on the day he was shot. He was transferred to three different hospitals, all three services’ surgeons pushing him to amputate. He refused.
Ninety percent of the muscle in his forearm was blown away, left somewhere back in Vietnam. Doctors were doubtful at his chance at recovery, let alone regaining full mobility.
“He was told that he would never use his arm again,” Cyndi said.
At Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, one particular doctor suggested an experimental surgery. Goetcheus didn’t hesitate.
His arm was sewn onto his stomach, using skin grafts to regrow the damaged tissue. Months later, his arm was surgically removed from his abdomen and fixed into a cast. After 10 operations, three different hospitals and 10 months of grueling recovery, he was released and returned home.
Goetcheus, a celebrity in his hometown, was invited to the Fall Foliage Festival in Indiana to ride in the parade as a war hero. But there was a golf tournament associated with the festival, one he’d won the year before. He longed to defend his title.
With the left arm he was told he’d never use again, his hand largely without feeling, Goetcheus battled through 18 holes. The morning newspaper heralded his victory with the headline, “Hoosier Nearly Lost Arm in Viet but Wins Golf,” abbreviating Vietnam.
Goetcheus served; in the Army for more than 20 years, eventually retiring as lieutenant colonel at age 40. He traveled around the world and was briefly stationed in Thailand with his family.
“He was obviously extremely proud of his service,” Cyndi said. “He would wear his military hats everywhere he went. I think the older he got, the more of his military service meant to him.”
Arlington National Cemetery sits across the Potomac River from Washington, a bubble of reflective silence in the heart of the nation’s capital. Built on what was once Robert E. Lee’s Arlington Estate, Arlington was officially named a national cemetery in 1864.
Today, across all 639 acres, waves of tombstones create a marble sea. Situated in near-perfect rows, they are uniform — almost standing at attention. More than 400,000 veterans and their families are buried here, some marked with extravagant crosses, and some whose remains were never identified.
It is an honor to be buried at Arlington Cemetery. Generally, eligibility extends to those who have served for more than 20 years; those who have died in active duty; those who received a Medal of Honor, Purple Heart, Silver Star or service medal; and spouses and dependents of those veterans.
R.K. Shirley, senior vice president of the Enders & Shirley Funeral Home in Berryville, Va., is coordinating Goetcheus’s funeral. He said that COVID-19 has greatly affected funeral services.
“Before COVID, the family and all their guests would meet in the administration building. As many people as you want would all cram in there,” Shirley said. “When COVID struck, you couldn’t go into the administration building, you would just pull in the parking lot and stay in your cars. They limited the number of people on numerous occasions; I think the lowest was 10 people allowed at a funeral.”
The extended honors for higher-ranked veterans were suspended, the chapel was closed, and the presentation of the flag to the next of kin was altered to avoid contact.
Today, 100 people are allowed at a funeral as long as they wear masks. The chapel has reopened, and the extended honors, such as those involving cannons and a caisson, are taking place once again. But the delay in services for higher-ranking veterans set families like the Goetcheus’s behind schedule.
“[Shirley] said, ‘Oh, it takes a good six to eight months.’ And so we said, OK, if it takes that long, it takes that long,” said Genevieve Pantuso Lane, Jim’s wife. “Well, now he’s saying a year. And when I last spoke to him, he’s saying he doesn’t know when they’ll notify him.”
A lengthy waitlist
Before the pandemic, military families could expect to wait between six and 49 weeks for burials of loved ones at Arlington National Cemetery, according to a Pentagon Inspector General report.
The report attributes the 49-week timeframe to high demand for graveside ceremonies and the increasing mortality rates of older veterans. Goetcheus was cremated, however, and his estimated funeral date extends that timeline.
Moreover, Shirley, said eligibility standards are changing, allowing anyone who saw combat to be buried at the cemetery. More soldiers mean a longer waitlist.
“The list was getting longer and longer,” she said. “If it’s a body in a casket, I guess they could keep it for a long time, but certainly not as long as ashes. We just have to deal with it.”
Genevieve had a small memorial service for her husband in Florida, but his children couldn’t attend. Their grieving process is still unfinished, and the funeral date continues to be pushed.
“It’s been really difficult not to have the closure of a funeral,” Cyndi said. “I’ve never lost a parent, but it feels particularly rough having to wait so long and not know when we’re going to be able to have his funeral and who’s going to be able to be there. It just seems like an odd way to say goodbye to somebody.”
Susan remembers his scars. A square on his arm that matched one on his stomach, the texture of a sodded lawn. They were his war paint — emblems of his time in combat.
She remembers his military uniform. Ahead of his children’s weddings, he would lose enough weight to squeeze back into it. Three of the four have been married, and he wore it each time.
“My father was obviously very proud of his military service,” she said. “He’s a patriotic person, a very much God-and-country kind of man.”
Cyndi remembers his showy taste in style. He wore a matching white belt and white shoes, with colored plaid trousers and a necklace with a golf bag charm.
She remembers the exotic animals he’d bring home from his travels — a lizard, a Siamese cat and great big tortoises. She was fond of his quirky ways of showing love, unironically gifting hair products to his bald son, and shopping from his junk drawer for Christmas each year.
Most of all, though, his family remembers his determination. The way his optimism made the word “no” unfathomable. He was a child with six sons. A pilot with a fear of heights. An almost certain amputee with all four limbs.
“He was heroic. He was tenacious, and he was a believer,” Susan said.
This is why his burial at Arlington, no matter how far into the future, is the only way. The spirit of Jim Goetcheus wouldn’t allow the family to settle for less.
When asked what her father would say, knowing how dragged out his funeral service would be, Susan laughed through somber tears.
“I like that question so much,” she said.
She laughed some more.
“He would just raise hell. He loved to just rant and rave. And if it was something that the government was failing to do, or the military was failing to do, I think that that would be one of his favorite rants.”
This story was provided by Media Hub, a project of students at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.