Military burials bring final dignity to homeless veterans
By MEGAN MCCLOSKEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 18, 2012
WICHITA, Kan. — He had nothing left to his name but his military service.
When the 64-year-old collapsed on the streets of this Midwestern city last month and soon died, he was homeless and alone — one of the 130,000 faceless veterans who go without shelter on any given night in this country.
Instead of being buried in a pauper’s grave — an ending that would have only reinforced his anonymous last years — the Vietnam veteran was again recognized as Army Sgt. Patrick Dunagan and honored with a military funeral.
Dunagan was laid to rest last week as part of a charitable effort called the Dignity Memorial Homeless Veterans Burial Program. Funeral homes in 35 cities work to provide destitute veterans with proper funerals by donating the casket and other services, arranging the military ceremony and coordinating with the Department of Veteran Affairs to provide a headstone and burial at a national cemetery.
Veterans are identified for the program by the local coroner and veterans service manager, who determine whether an unclaimed deceased person served in the military. They use Social Security numbers or prior addresses if known, and sometimes send fingerprints to the FBI, which keeps records of all military personnel.
Two veterans came up with the idea at a luncheon in St. Louis in 2000, and more than 1,250 homeless veterans like Dunagan have been buried through the program.
Last week on the windy plains of Kansas, few words were spoken about Dunagan at the ceremony; all that was known about him was what was on his military discharge form.
He joined the Army on Nov. 12, 1968, served his country in Vietnam and was honorably discharged as a sergeant on Oct. 12, 1970.
Those paying their respects were mostly strangers. Dozens of Patriot Guard Riders, a national group of motorcyclists who attend military funerals, lined the ceremony in black leather vests, holding American flags, and three local Gold Star Mothers sat in white in the front row.
Betty Jean Pulliam lost her son in Vietnam. Anita Dixon’s son, Army Sgt. Evan S. Parker, was killed in Iraq in 2005. Angela Foster’s son, Lance Cpl. James May, drowned in 2010 off Cuba.
At each funeral in Wichita, at least one bereaved mom from the local chapter of the American Gold Star Mothers stands in as a substitute for family to accept the American flag presented by the military.
Foster, who took the day off from work at a special needs school to be at Dunagan’s funeral, said it was always emotional, repeating the motions she went through at her son’s funeral. But she said she looks forward to being there for the veterans.
“My son wanted to be in the military since he was 3 years old, so what better way to honor him than to honor other soldiers and Marines?” she said.
Some of the funerals are harder than others. At one, the Marine who handed her the flag was the same Marine who came to her door to notify her of her son’s death.
“He looked me in the eyes and I started crying and he started crying too,” Foster said.
For the first time, Foster brought her other son with her to attend the services. He enlisted in the Navy this summer, a week before the two-year anniversary of his brother’s death, and leaves for boot camp in December.
“I’m proud of him, but it does make me nervous,” Foster said. “He’s the only kid I have left.”
In what was a rare event for these kind of funerals, Dunagan’s estranged brother, who had earlier declined to claim Dunagan’s body, unexpectedly showed up, but he and his wife didn’t change the typical ceremony and deferred the flag to the Gold Star Mothers.
After the short eulogy by a Patriot Guard Rider, the Army Honor Guard from Fort Riley fired a three-volley salute and Foster teared up as she always does when the bugle player sounded the lonely call of taps.
As her wide, open face pinkened with emotion, Foster watched the soldiers meticulously fold the flag that had draped Dunagan’s casket. The Army staff sergeant knelt in front of her and handed her the folded flag on behalf of the president and a grateful nation.
The Wichita chapter of Dignity Memorial has the flags encased and presents them to ROTC programs at area high schools.
“It did not seem right to have this flag and do nothing with it,” Dixon said, noting that local ROTC commanders clamor for the flag dedications as valuable lessons to the young aspiring troops.
Dixon, who said she goes to the funerals because “it keeps my son alive in my heart,” used to pay to have the flags encased and engraved with the veteran’s name, but a local veteran has since donated his services.
After the ceremony came to a close, Patriot Guard members carried Dunagan’s casket to a hearse as Foster followed slowly behind, holding the flag reverently against her chest with both hands placed as carefully as if it were an infant.
Even though being there brings up memories of her son’s funeral and of the SUV of Marines pulling up in her driveway the day he died, “it really makes me feel good to do it,” she said. “I know Jimmy would want me to be there for the veterans.”
So Foster will keep showing up. “I don’t plan on stopping just because I cry.”