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Strangers pay respects at homeless veteran's funeral

ST. LOUIS — It seemed odd at first, so many people coming to a funeral for somebody they didn’t know.

But there 45 people were on a sunny and warm Wednesday afternoon, including more than a dozen motorcycles worth of Patriot Guard Riders who led the procession to a chapel at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.

It was one of several funerals for homeless veterans that Joe McMahon, 82, and his pals with a local Korean War Association chapter have helped out on. Sometimes they are pallbearers. This time, they were there just as part of the crowd.

“What’s his name?” McMahon, of Arnold, a retired millwright and Army veteran, asked just before the short service began.

His friends shrugged. The only detail that mattered was the man was a veteran.

The man getting buried this day was Frederick W. Birkl, 76, who served in the Air Force during the Korean War era and never rose above the lowest rank, airman basic. He went on to become a transient, who, for a spell, lived under a blue tarp north of St. Louis, along the Mississippi River.

He died April 20, two years after a nursing home in Troy, Mo., took him in.

“My role as a veteran is to honor his service, not the life after his service,” said Army National Guard Lt. Col. Andre D’Arden, who served as chaplain for the funeral.

And so the riders, old vets, a handful of funeral home workers and a few people from the nursing home Birkl had left an impression on gathered to pay their respects — not so much in words, but by being present.

A woman, with her hand on a flag-covered casket, sang “Amazing Grace.” A funeral director read a poem about service members who never come back from war the same.

Those in attendance bowed their heads.

“We stand on his behalf and say, ‘Lord, have mercy on his soul,’” prayed Waverly Weaver Jr., 81, a Korean War vet from De Soto.

The service was paid for by Hoffmeister Colonial Mortuary, which is part of Dignity Memorial, a national funeral home chain. They bathed Birkl, dressed him in a suit — probably for the first time in decades — and rested him in a brown metal casket.

In 2000, retired Army Maj. Gen. Bill Branson, of Hillsboro, helped start a national program at Dignity Memorial to bury homeless vets such as Birkl. Since then, they’ve buried 89 in St. Louis and 1,400 across the country.

“Many (veterans) have great difficulty adjusting to our time,” Branson told the crowd Wednesday.

While many didn’t know Birkl’s circumstances, Branson said: “He would be so proud to know he was surrounded.”

But who knows for sure?

“He was very crusty,” said Angie Baker, administrator of Lincoln County Nursing and Rehabilitation.

Though memorable, he was private, she said, but the longer he was there, the more he opened up.

He loved the first of the month because it meant payday. He’d tuck cash into his socks and spend it on Dr Pepper and 100 Grand candy bars. He cherished a green military fatigue jacket. Sometimes he missed the wanderlust of living the hobo life.

The Post-Dispatch caught up with him on the banks of the river in 2000. He wore rings on every finger and a necklace of large beads, according to a short story. He was moody.

The beer he sipped was “truth syrup” to him. He said he was originally from Altoona, Pa., the youngest child of German immigrants. He said he joined the Air Force at 16½, with the needed signature of his parents. He said he spent part of his service unloading war dead from C-124 transports at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

Karen Bobeen, also of the nursing home, said Birkl wouldn’t talk about his service. She recalled him saying: “Ladies don’t need to hear what happened in the military.”

She was given Birkl’s folded flag at the end of the funeral. She planned to place it in a case at the nursing home.

But before she left, Bobeen and many of the others at the short funeral flinched at an abrupt jolt of rifle volleys. The subtle jangle of metal casings bouncing on concrete followed.

Then, of course, taps swooned on a horn.

It’s the same forlorn piece played for generals — and on this day, for an airman basic who used to sleep beside the river.
 

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