By Ernie Williamson
It used to be that eligible veterans with no known next of kin were provided “no direct witness” burials.
The veterans would die alone. No honors. No recognition of their service to our country.
Since Texas implemented the Unaccompanied Veterans Program in 2015, however, 241 eligible veterans with no known next of kin have been interred with honor and dignity in one of four Texas state cemeteries, regardless of where they may have found themselves in life.
And they are not buried with no one in attendance.
The Unaccompanied Veterans Program has cultivated close ties with funeral homes, county officials, local judges and Patriot Guard Riders, a group founded in 2005 to support veterans.
These organizations notify the veterans program if they cannot find a veteran’s next of kin.
Over the next four to five days, the Unaccompanied Veterans Program uses social media to call for attendance at the burial of the unaccompanied veteran.
There are state cemeteries in Killeen, Mission, Corpus Christi, and Abilene.
The communities surrounding these cemeteries provide support for the program by attending the last rite of passage.
The attendance at these funerals shows the respect these communities have for the military family, says Dr. John Kelley, a retired Army officer and director of the Texas State Veterans Cemeteries.
“We usually have between 100 and 300 people from these local communities attend the burial of an unaccompanied veteran,” says Kelley.
Just recently, the Killeen community gathered to pay respects to U.S. Army corporal Mirl Duane Forrest, an 86-year-old veteran who honorably served his country from 1954 to 1963.
Paul Passamonti, a retired U.S. Army veteran, told the ABC station in Killeen that he was there because he hopes someone would do the same for him.
“Maybe as time moves on, one day that could be me,” he said. “Hopefully not, but if it were, I would like a group of people like this to come and render such honors. Whenever I can, I show up.”
The veterans program says there are several reasons why a veteran may have an absence of next of kin.
The next of kin may have died, the veteran may be separated from his family because of family discord, or the veteran may suffer from health issues that led to social isolation.
Kelley says the program recently had a burial for an unaccompanied veteran only to have a next of kin contact the program two months later. The woman had been out of the country.
She was sent a flag.
(Contact Ernie at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, P.O. Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516).