Bob Johnson stands at attention, holding up an American flag as seven uniformed men nearby fire a 21-gun salute at the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.
Wearing a blue-jean vest with patches denoting his service in Vietnam, the Navy veteran joined fellow Patriot Guard Riders in a half-circle in front of a crowd of almost 100 people on a dreary, windy day to honor veterans almost forgotten.
Men and women, many wearing Veterans of Foreign Wars uniforms or who are spouses of veterans, gathered near thousands of headstones in perfect rows to honor 12 veterans recently interred at San Antonio’s national cemetery — all of whom died with no known or living family.
Veterans honored in the Jan. 18 memorial service:
Cpl. Otis Benton, U.S. Marine Corps
Sgt. Susan Bivins, U.S. Air Force
Master Sgt. Anthony J. Cook, U.S. Air Force
Seaman Recruit Juan D. Gonzales, U.S. Navy
Sgt. Juan T. Guerra, U.S. Army
Spc. Paul Hudson, U.S. Army
Seaman Frank G. Kiese, U.S. Navy
Pfc. Anne E. Lymburner, U.S. Army
Spc. James J. Mance, U.S. Army
Airman 1st Class Larry L. Payton, U.S. Air Force
Staff Sgt. Ramon A. Portalatin, U.S. Marine Corps
Pvt. Lonnie H. Wine, U.S. Army
The dozen names read aloud Wednesday represent a small fraction of the approximately 4,500 veterans, spouses and eligible dependents interred each year at San Antonio’s national cemetery. The veterans without family, however, were no less important to the attendees than the 18 to 20 veterans or eligible family members interred each day in ceremonies with loved ones usually present, according to Kim Herrington, an administrative specialist at the cemetery.
“It turns out that we’re their family,” said Johnson, a volunteer with the San Antonio Patriot Guard Riders, who stand in a flag line at funerals and interments and make a barrier between families and protesters if requested.
“We always pray for our family every night, and it’s sad [these veterans] disappeared into the faces of the homeless, or outlived their families.”
The veterans honored Wednesday served in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines and were in their late 50s to 80s. They died between October 2022, when the federal government’s fiscal year began, and mid-January of this year. Cemetery and Bexar County staffers have arranged burials for an average of 26 veterans without families in each of the past three years, and are on pace so far this fiscal year to beat that average, according to Brenda Hoster, administrative officer for the cemetery.
“We hold this memorial service so they don’t go unrecognized for their service to our country,” Hoster said.
Two women were among those recognized Wednesday, equaling the number of unaccompanied women veterans interred in the past three years combined.
The interring of unaccompanied veterans is part of the Bexar County Department of Community Resources’ pauper and indigent burial assistance. County taxpayers provide a “simple, respectful and dignified service for families with no funding for a funeral/burial service.”
When the deceased person is determined to be a veteran with no relatives, then the county, cemetery and Veterans Administration staff coordinate to determine eligibility and arrange for burial at Fort Sam Houston, said Nancy Taguacta, Bexar County Military and Veterans Services Center assistant director. The remains go directly from a funeral home to the cemetery for burial, forgoing military honors, a 21-gun salute and playing of taps individually. The all-volunteer Fort Sam Houston Cemetery Memorial Services Detachment instead provides these honors during the quarterly unaccompanied veteran memorial service.
“This is Military City, USA,” Herrington said after the service. “These guys have paved the way for me, they paid a price so I can be free. Any way that we can show respect and pay respect to these guys, I’m for it. We need to remember.”
The federal government provides a no-cost burial in a national cemetery to all veterans and family members deemed eligible. This benefit includes a headstone or monument, a grave liner for the casket, opening and closing of the gravesite, a U.S. flag and presidential memorial certificate and perpetual care of the gravesite. Veterans’ survivors pay for the funeral home expenses such as preparing the body for burial or cremation, the casket and professional services.
When the veterans have no known or living family, Bexar County reimburses the funeral home for their expenses, and the national cemetery reimburses the county.
There were approximately 178,000 veteran or family remains interred in 129,000 gravesites at Fort Sam Houston Cemetery as of Dec. 31, according to Hoster. The first interment in the cemetery that became known as the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery took place in 1926. Based on the 2020 census, the VA estimates there are about 156,000 veterans in Bexar County, and an expansion project is underway to accommodate future burials or cremations.
As at all national cemeteries, veterans at the Fort Sam Houston cemetery are interred in the ground or cremated and placed in the ground or in above-ground columbaria, Hoster said. Spouses, dependent children and dependent adults of veterans may be buried or cremated and interred at the cemetery alongside the veteran, but the spouse must be married to the veteran at the time of the veteran’s death or precede the veteran in death to be eligible.
The average price for a traditional full-service burial and funeral service in San Antonio is approximately $4,800, according to Funeralocity, a national consumer advocacy website. This cost includes embalming and preparation of the body, a casket, visitation or wake prior to the funeral, a service at either a church or funeral home chapel, a funeral procession to the gravesite, a service prior to the burial and funeral home fees. The average cost for a direct cremation is $2,000 and a full-service cremation averages $4,900.
On rare occasions, a family member of a deceased veteran contacts the Fort Sam Houston cemetery staff after learning of an unaccompanied interment.
“A family member may have seen an obituary or something of that nature and said, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s my uncle or my great uncle’ or something to that effect,” said David Aubrey, the cemetery’s director.
Aubrey said he remembers this happening once in the last nine years, but he considers helping bring closure to a family by publicizing the names of those who were buried, while also honoring veterans who have no family able to attend the ceremony, an added benefit of their efforts.