After Marine’s death, family struggles to give him a military funeral
For Michael Tsepas, his proudest accomplishment in life was serving in the United States Marine Corps. Now, days after his death, his family is finding it difficult to make sure he's laid to rest with military honors.
Tsepas's sister, Rebekah Gil, said the family's frustration is mounting as they get closer to his memorial service Saturday. She said the cost involved in a full military funeral and the paperwork and bureaucratic red tape involved - since he lived out of state and will be buried in New Jersey - is putting financial strain on the family. It's also causing a lot of concern that they won't be able to pull it together in time.
Tsepas, who served in the Marine Corps from 1992-96 died alone late last week in his apartment in Queens, New York at the age of 42. He was discovered by friends who lived in the same building - a special apartment complex for veterans facing issues such as PTSD and substance abuse problems. Gil said the cause of her brother's untimely death is still being investigated by the medical examiner, but they believe it may have been an accidental overdose for which he may have sought help before becoming unconscious. She said she's hoping her brother's June 9 death will also draw attention to the high suicide rate among veterans following deployment.
"He really went through a hard time after the military but he would absolutely give anything to everybody," Gil said.
Tsepas was deployed to the Middle East during Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s. He served as a mortarman, and because of his experience as a lifeguard growing up in Hackettstown, he also worked for the military as a swim instructor.
Gil was headed to Tsepas' apartment Monday when she spoke to NJ 101.5. She said she needed to pick up her brother's belongings and honorable discharge papers in order to satisfy one of the requirements for a military funeral. It wasn't a trip her family was looking forward to making.
Tsepas was very close with his family, according to his sister. She said he would spend weekends at their new home in Long Valley, helping his mother, Ramona, in her garden.
"It was always funny to see this big guy planting flowers and picking strawberries," his sister recalled. "He could have fun doing anything."
The Marine loved music and going to concerts with friends and his siblings. He also loved to cook and was pretty good at it, his sister said. Tsepas also took great pride in being a New Jerseyan. He and Gil both has tattoos representing the Garden State.
Gill said she and Tsepas - whose nickname was "Greek" - were 10 years apart in age, but they were very close.
“He was the greatest person I knew. He was literally my best friend. He would give you the shirt off his back,” she said, adding that he was also close to his brother Demetrios and his dad, also named Michael. "He was just funny and he loved to laugh."
Gil said everyone always felt safe around her big brother and his death has devastated the entire family.
"He was very tough. Nothing scared him," Gil said. "He was the bravest person I knew."
Now, the family wants to honor his bravery. Tsepas' sister-in-law Jessica started a fundraising page on YouCaring, a crowdfunding site. So far, they've raised about $1,600 in funds they will use to give Tsepas a military funeral, but their goal is $10,000. They still haven't even been able to secure the American flag that is traditionally draped over the casket during a military service.
"Everything we’re doing is costing us more and more money," she said.
A service for Tsepas is planned for Saturday, June 18. There will be visitation from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the William J Leber Funeral Home in Chester, followed by a brief service at 1 p.m. Interment will be at Union Cemetery in Hackettstown. Gil said the family is still holding out hope that they will be able to honor him and his service in the military in a way they believe is fitting.
Toniann Antonelli is a social content producer for NJ 101.5. She can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter @ToniRadio1015.