States and volunteers help give veterans their final honors

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush accepts a folded flag on behalf of Maj. Lee Shotwell Jr. on March 12, 2019, at the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery in Killeen. Shotwell died Nov. 20 at age 73 with no known family. As part of Veterans Land Board program to provide funerals for unaccompanied veterans, Shotwell was the 100th veteran so honored by the state.


By ROSE L. THAYER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 25, 2019

AUSTIN, Texas — While sitting at work one day in March, Shannon Fowler typed his father’s name into Google — something he does a couple times per year, hoping to find any sort of information about the man he never knew.

Past efforts had never resulted in any information, but for the first time in decades, search results appeared — Ralph Ardith Fowler, 80, had been buried the week prior in Mission, Texas.

“I felt a combination of is this really him and relief that finally, there was some type of connection,” said Fowler, 60.

With no next-of-kin identified, the elder Fowler, a Navy veteran, had been buried through Texas’ Unaccompanied Veteran Burial Program, which ensures all veterans in the state receive funerals with full military honors.

A handful of local south Texas news outlets had covered the funeral, and Fowler slowly began to compare the facts mentioned in the articles to the few details that he had collected for years about his father.

“They mentioned he was from Indianapolis, where I grew up,” said Fowler, who now lives in Fort Myers, Fla.

The reports mentioned he was stationed with the Navy in Brunswick, Maine, from 1956 to 1960. That was where Fowler was born. About a year after his birth, Fowler’s parents divorced.

“Over the years, I never had any contact with his side of the family,” he said. “My mother died in 1994. Growing up, she never talked about him a whole lot, and I didn’t know to ask a lot of questions.”

Other states and organizations make efforts to bury veterans with full military honors, in some cases when there is no one to coordinate the ceremony on their behalf, such as a family member. But Texas has a formalized, funded program that also invites the public to honor the veteran at a funeral service.

‘Precision and detail’

Launched in 2015, the Texas program buried its 100th veteran on March 12. With a veteran population of roughly 1.6 million, which is second-most after California, according to Department of Veteran Affairs statistics, such a program has value in Texas. More so, the state is home to 13 military installations that employ more than 224,000 people, according to the governor’s Texas Military Preparedness Commission. Of those people, about 138,800 are active-duty servicemembers.

Land Commissioner George P. Bush initiated the burial program when he took office in 2015 and credits the large military communities scattered throughout Texas for much of its success. The son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, he is Texas’ only statewide elected official who is a veteran.

“The precision and detail in a full military ceremony for funerals is awe-inspiring and we felt it’s important for all veterans,” said Bush, 43, who served as a lieutenant in the Navy Reserve.

At the onset of the program, Bush said he and his staff didn’t know what to expect regarding the frequency of veterans dying with no family to claim them.

“In celebrating 100 in three years, this is actually an area that was not being covered adequately,” he said.

Industry standards estimate a burial with a service costs about $6,000, said Karina Erickson, spokeswoman for the Texas General Land Office. With help from federal reimbursements and local donations, she said, the impact to the agency’s budget is “little to none.”

The VA reimburses $780 to Texas for each veteran burial to help cover the cost of the plot, the headstone, the grave liner and the opening and closing of the grave. Local floral shops donate flowers, and volunteers step up to provide the military honors.

While the military provides all veterans with the basic funeral honors of playing taps and a flag presentation, retirees, senior-ranking servicemembers and others who die on active duty receive full honors from six-member honors teams, which includes volley fire from rifles, Erickson said.

In Mission and Corpus Christi, a team of volunteers ensures all veterans get the full honors, she said. These volunteer groups are recognized by the VA, and their participation is standard practice at other state and national cemeteries.

Similar to Texas, Maine sees that all veterans are buried with military honors unless the veteran specified in writing it is something he or she did not want, said Sarah Sherman, spokeswoman for the Maine Bureau of Veterans’ Services. Those services are not publicized. Instead, the bureau’s director, the state cemetery supervisor and their staff attend the ceremony so the veteran is not alone.

Texas invites the public once a funeral is scheduled at one of the four veterans cemeteries run by the state. Most burials average about 20 people in attendance, with the majority of attendees coming from veteran motorcycle clubs and veteran service organizations.

David “Bear” Noble, 63, is the national president of the Patriot Guard Riders, one of the many volunteer groups to support these burial efforts. The nonprofit motorcycle organization’s 350,000 members attend funerals for veterans across the country. He said it doesn’t matter whether a veteran was unaccompanied, homeless, destitute or a millionaire, the Patriot Guard will be there for them.

‘One of my greatest fears’

“One of my greatest fears— and it happens every day — is that a veteran is going to be buried and not have the honor and respect that he has earned. It makes no difference if that man or woman served two years or 42 years. I served 21 years and I’m no more important than someone who served this organization who is destitute and served two years,” Noble said.

In January, a Texas burial announcement went viral, inspiring about 1,000 people to attend the funeral of Air Force veteran Joseph Walker at the Central Texas Veterans Cemetery in Killeen. Vehicles backed up about a mile down the highway, and police were called to direct traffic.

“It shows the greatness of our country that people on an ongoing basis recognize the contributions of those that have served in the military, to do so at a solemn event, to take time to make that honor. For our country to survive, we need people to recognize and honor those that sacrifice the most,” Bush said. “For me, as public servant, it refuels my tank in terms of inspiration.”

Across the Sabine River, the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs works with Catholic War Veterans USA Post 1968 to make certain no veteran is interred without military honors.

Billy Robbins, the department’s cemetery director, said he’s asked the state legislature for about $40,000 for several years from the state’s Military Family Assistance Fund to take on the cost. The fund is for military and veteran families in times of hardship.

“We do it because we want attention for the veteran who passed away,” Robbins said.

Last year, he turned to Catholic War Veterans for nine or 10 burials, which were open to public attendance. Larry Jones, director of the Catholic Wars Veterans post, said they were happy to donate the needed money for cremations because the idea of veterans being quietly buried without a service “didn’t sit well” with their membership.

“I think anybody who’s served in the military deserves to have at least the minimal military service,” Jones said. “Veterans have earned the flag folding and playing of taps.”

Finding the forgotten

The funds needed to bury these veterans pay costs not covered by VA reimbursements, including preparation of the body for burial or cremation, as well as the manpower to actually plan and coordinate a service.

The VA provided reimbursements for 352 caskets and 18 urns in fiscal year 2018 nationwide, said Les A. Melnyk, spokesman for the VA’s National Cemetery Administration. In addition, the administration interred about 1,500 unclaimed veterans that same year at monthly or quarterly committal services held across the country at its national cemeteries.

The maximum reimbursement allowed by the VA for 2019 is $2,681 for a casket and $162 for an urn.

So far this fiscal year, the VA has had about 700 unaccompanied burials. Most of them are held with the assistance of veteran service organizations, volunteer honor guards and nonprofits dedicated to this subject, such as the Missing in America Project.

Linda Smith, Missouri-based CEO and director of Missing in America, said their team of volunteers works with funeral homes to identify cremated remains of veterans in storage and to provide funerals. In 2015, the program identified the remains of Civil War veteran Maj. Raphael Guido Rombauer and hosted a funeral. The urn had been at a St. Louis funeral home for more than 100 years.

“Would you want to be stuck in some basement of some funeral home and no one know you existed?” said Smith, a Navy veteran.

Established in 2000, Smith said Missing in America has helped get laws passed in more than 30 states to ease their work because many funeral homes are hesitant to let them into their storage of unclaimed remains, she said. The biggest concern is it could open the business up to legal repercussions from families of the deceased, she said.

In Missouri, she worked to help pass a statute that allows a funeral establishment or coroner in possession of cremated remains to release the remains to a veterans service organization upon verification of eligibility for a military burial in a state or national veterans cemetery.

Disabled American Veterans and Veterans of Foreign Wars contact their local posts or chapters for assistance with the burial costs if there are no other resources available, said Daniel Bell, spokesman for the Missouri Veterans Commission. The American Legion refers these veterans’ cases to the Dignity Memorial’s Homeless Veterans Burial Program, he said.

Dignity Memorial, a national network of funeral homes, operates its program in various parts of the country. Since 2000, the company has buried more than 1,700 veterans without family or the means to do so, according to its website.

“We come together to be that family for someone,” said William Lynch, director for the program in South Carolina that began last year. The funeral home manages all the planning, paperwork, clothing and casket for the funeral and also reaches out to invite the community.

In May, a funeral was held for two veterans who died in the state, Lynch said. About 80 to 100 people attended.

‘A sense of pride’

“With how the world is today, people are looking for something good to do and feel good about. When you go to a service like this, it does provide a sense of pride in your country. People brought children. They want them to understand what these men and women sacrificed and to support them no matter what kind of circumstances they’ve been in in life,” Lynch said.

In Texas and Louisiana, unaccompanied veteran funerals have led to reuniting families, such as in the case of Fowler. For many of them, however, reconnecting can be painful, Erickson said. In some instances, the veteran might have been alienated from family members, particularly when they died while homeless or battling addiction.

For Fowler, he felt relief to have finally found his father, even if in death. Had it not been for the Texas program, Fowler doesn’t know whether he would have found him at all. And while it has been difficult, it has led him on a journey to find out more about his father.

“I don’t have words to express how grateful I am for that program,” Fowler said.

Without it, there might not have been such a public recording of his father’s death.

Now, Fowler said, he’s “piecing together 59 years of my life I never knew.”

Twitter: @Rose_Lori

About 1,000 people attended the Jan. 28, 2019, funeral of Air Force veteran Joseph Walker at the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery in Killeen. Walker was buried by the Veterans Land Board as part of its unaccompanied veteran burial program.