FRESNO, Calif. — When Bob "Doc" Protzman discovered that the remains of U.S. veterans sometime sit indefinitely on shelves in morgues or mortuaries — or that they are buried, without recognition for their service — he knew he had to do something about it.
He wasn't about to let that happen in Madera County.
About a year ago, he approached county officials with his concern, asking for permission to help. Ultimately, he was named veterans remains officer for Madera County.
He's also the county coordinator for the Missing in America Project, which helps locate and identify unclaimed remains of veterans, and then honors them.
On Friday, a ceremony was held for one of those unsung military members: Carlton Neal Jr. of Madera, formerly of Chowchilla.
Members of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1981 in Madera conducted a full military honors ceremony in front of their post. It included a 21-gun salute and bugle playing taps to honor Neal, who served in the U.S. Air Force. He achieved the rank of airman first class before he was honorably discharged, Protzman said.
Neal was a Cold War veteran who served in peacetime between 1958 and 1960. Outside of his military service, the Oklahoma native worked as a farm laborer for 20 years. He died Jan. 21 in Madera Community Hospital due to respiratory problems, Protzman said. He was 75.
Little more was known of Neal by those who honored him Friday. But many of those at his ceremony said they know this: U.S. veterans should not be buried without being paid proper respect.
After the ceremony, Neal's ashes were driven by Charles Hunnicutt, veteran service officer for Fresno and Madera counties, to the San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery in Santa Nella. A large cluster of motorcycles, the Patriot Guard Riders, followed as an honorary motorcade.
Another military ceremony was held at the national cemetery before Neal's remains were laid to rest.
"The goal is to give him the proper military burial and respect that he deserves," Hunnicutt said. "It doesn't take too much to be motivated to help veterans. When you hear other comrades asking you for your assistance, you don't even hesitate."
Protzman was contacted earlier this year by the county, because immediate family had not been found for Neal. His only known living relative is a second cousin, Patricia Neal from Chowchilla.
Patricia Neal told Protzman she was close with Carlton Neal, and that he helped care for her because she has a disability. But because she wasn't immediate family, his remains couldn't be released to her.
Protzman wanted to help her get the closure she deserved. At the Madera ceremony, she was presented a folded American flag in her cousin's honor.
Madera County Supervisor Rick Farinelli attended the ceremony to applaud collaboration between the VFW, the veterans affairs office and Missing in America.
"It's very impressive," Farinelli said of the ceremony, adding he's hopeful many more veterans will be found and honored in the same way.
Norman Allinder, vice commander for VFW Post 1981, took the day off as Madera County's director of planning and building so he could help with the ceremony and accompany Neal's remains to Santa Nella.
"Remember to look out for your friends and neighbors," Allinder said. "You never know what they've done or how they've sacrificed."