Friend keeps promise to dying veteran

GLEN ROBBINS- It’s safe to say that Glenn Balk went the extra few thousands miles to keep a promise he had made to a dying friend.

Balk and Robert “Red” Virtue met in the early 1960s when they both worked at Tottererdale Plumbing in Martins Ferry. Red moved on to work at the Ferry Hardware store but the their friendship remained intact and endured even beyond May 22, 2011 when Red died of cancer at the age of 91.

“Red never married and as far as I know, he never had a girlfriend,” Balk said of his friend. “He became like family to me and my wife, Delores.”

Balk and Red shared a love of muzzle loader rifles and of escaping into the aura of mountain men -with their ornate buckskin clothing and coonskin hats.

“He loved to hunt and fish,” Balk said. “And he was an excellent cook. He also did elaborate woodworking, making jewelry and spice boxes with dove tale joints and wooden pegs rather than nails. The craftsmanship and detail was unreal.”

Balk said he knew Red was a WWII veteran but his friend never talked much about his military service. He never told whatever war stories lingered in his mind. The only hint came when he realized he was dying.

“He was diagnosed with cancer in 2009,” Balk said. “Over the next couple of years I drove him dozens of times to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Pittsburgh for treatment.”

During one of those trips, Red voiced a dying wish.

Red told Balk, “I would like you to do me a favor when I die. I would like to be cremated and have my remains buried at sea in the South Pacific with all of my friends. I want you to promise to get me there.”

Balk said, “I told him if I can do it, I will do it. Then, I thought to myself, ‘how do you keep a promise like that?'”

He faced that promise almost immediately after finding his friend dead on the floor in the bedroom of his Glen Robbins home.

With the help of a lot of people, Balk fulfilled his promise.

He said Red had prepaid for his final arrangements with the Keller Funeral Home in Martins Ferry.

“Once Keller’s got the cremains back, I contacted Mark Armitage at the Yorkville Veterans of Foreign Wars Post,” Balk said. “He called a navy base in Hawaii and got permission to ship the ashes to Pearl Harbor for eventual burial at sea. Somebody from the navy called and said it would be taken care on the next trip out.”

Balk did not attend the full military service, but he still chokes up when he looks at the pictures of the service and letter from the commanding officer of the USS Russell (DDG 59).

The letter – accompanied by cartridges from rifle salute, a chart identifying the location of the ship at the time of committal and a drape American flag – confirms that Red’s cremains were taken aboard on Aug. 24, 2011 while the ship was in port at Pearl Harbor. It left port on Sept. 1 for an eight-month deployment.

The burial at sea, with full military pomp and pageantry took place at 8 a.m. on March 24, 2012. A seven-member rifle squad and 12-member honor platoon honored the fallen veteran.

Private First Class Robert B. Virtue and his war stories joined his friends in the deep of the South Pacific.