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More than 100 military members and civilians stood in silence Friday afternoon at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery to pay their respects to 17 veterans who received full military honors before being laid to rest.
ROTC cadets carried each of the black and gold urns through an honor guard. The urns contained the cremated remains of veterans that had been escorted by volunteers from the Patriot Guard Riders the night before. What made this service different from other military funerals is that none of the mourners knew any of the veterans being interred.
The deceased had no next of kin when they died. In Texas, cases like these go to the county judge, who orders cremation and storage of remains in county courthouses or funeral homes. The 17 laid to rest on Friday were identified as veterans by the Missing in America Project (MIAP) and therefore eligible for interment with full military honors.
Joyce Earnest, the Texas state coordinator for MIAP, organized not just this service, but also two others at Fort Sam since 2017. The remains interred Friday came from Amarillo, where they had been stored in the Potter County courthouse.
“When this started back in 2006, it was estimated that there were about 250,000 cremains stored in warehouses across the nation,” she said. “It’s estimated that 10 percent of those are veterans.”
To find the remains of veterans, MIAP volunteers go to funeral homes, mortuaries, and crematories to do an inventory of unclaimed remains stored there. The volunteers send the information to the Veterans Administration to find out which of the deceased were veterans.
County officials, as well as MIAP volunteers, try to locate the deceased’s next of kin before the burial. However, if no family members are immediately found, MIAP keeps a record for those who might look for them in the future.
The organization has identified 90 deceased veterans in Texas, 68 of whom received burials before Friday’s ceremony.
The ceremony involved the cooperation of the military branches and local law enforcement agencies. An honor guard comprised of the five military branches conducted a traditional salute with the help of the Patriot Guard Riders. The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office provided a riderless horse, while the San Antonio Police Department arranged a helicopter flyover.
In a speech, MIAP representative Joel Carver expressed his gratitude toward the veterans and active military alike. “We don’t know much about them, but we know they served us wonderfully,” he said.
The 17 veterans laid to rest represented all branches of the military.
Seven were U.S. Army veterans: Sgt. Thomas Randolph DeWitt, Spc. Ronald Broduer Hunihan, Pfc. Clifton Jones, Pvt. Walter Carroll Morgan, Pfc. Jesse I. Rosecrans, Pvt. Homer Warr, and Pvt. Rich Arlan Yule.
Another seven served in the U.S. Navy: Airman Richard Neil Hoover, Petty Officer 1st Class Walter Daniel Kunka, Petty Officer 3rd Class Joe David Morton, Seaman Gary Lee Cooper, Seaman Robert Ronalds Garrett, Seaman Recruit Paul Jean Hurst, and Seaman Recruit Ronnie Lee Lusk.
In addition, U.S. Air Force veteran Senior Airman Randy Jackson, U.S. Coast Guard Seaman Don Michael Watson, and U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Howard Peterman also were interred.
While saluting the veterans, some in the audience were moved to tears. Earnest appreciates their support. “I am very pleased and proud, ” she said after the service. “The crowd was wonderful.”
Kathy Flynn also volunteered at the ceremony. She has a son in the military and is a part of the homeless and unaccompanied veteran’s burial project.
“They have been forgotten by so many,” she said. “They have no one to come forward from their family to say, ‘We’re going to bury you.’ So we do it for them. And I find that to be one of the most fulfilling things that I do.”
The circumstances of death for these unclaimed veterans can differ widely. While some of them may have struggled with poverty and homelessness, others simply left no heirs or relatives behind.