People pack Wyoming cemetery as remains of 23 veterans are brought to final resting place

By SETH KLAMANN | Casper Star Tribune | Published: September 19, 2019

CASPER, Wyo. (Tribune News Service) — Twenty-three men were brought to their final resting place in Evansville on Wednesday, shepherded from a funeral home in Sheridan to Natrona County by a hearse, Patriot Guard bikers, law enforcement and, at the end, a street lined with children.

The kids were from Evansville Elementary. Waving American flags, they stood on both sides of the street, right where the road curves and stops being Curtis Street and briefly turns into Veterans Drive. A few yards further north, as it gets closer to its dead end, the street becomes Cemetery Road.

This is what is publicly known about these 23 men, whose remains were in the back of the gray hearse: They were all veterans. Some were cared for at the VA hospital in Sheridan. None had family who claimed them. All were cremated and then were kept at Kane Funeral Home in Sheridan, under an American flag. Some were indigent.

Not all were sons of Wyoming. Their hometowns stretched from Palm Beach to Detroit, from Casper and Thermopolis to Bedford, Virginia, from Chicago to Philadelphia, from Phoenix to a little town in southeastern Missouri. They were airmen, sailors and soldiers. One — Craig Sanders — was a Marine.

The boxes that held their remains were placed in colored velvet bags. Bright, blood red for Sanders, deep green for the 13 Army veterans, white for the three sailors (though one airmen, Ronald Sloan, was also placed in a white bag) and navy blue for the five other airmen. Around the top of the bags were red, white and blue ribbons that held dog tags identifying the men. The boxes were placed in neat rows in the hearse, the same hearse that carried Korean War veteran Cpl. DeMaret Marston Kirtley home to Kaycee earlier this summer.

Mike Byers has participated in quite a few such ceremonies. He’s the captain of the Wyoming Patriot Guard, the group of bikers who escort home the remains of fallen soldiers. It’s always hard, he said. Byers was in the Army, “a grunt,” and he served during Vietnam.

What he did in the service, Byers added, is immaterial. He and the other riders were here to take the men to their final resting place. That was their job. That’s what they do. He became emotional when he talked about these 23 men remaining unclaimed. He called it ridiculous.

The military is a band of brothers, Byers continued, quoting the famous Shakespeare line. Men who served in World War II, old enough to be his father, they are his brothers. A man who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, young enough to be his son, is his brother. These 23 men were his brothers.

At the cemetery Wednesday morning, before the ceremony, Byers was directing traffic. He stood at the end of a line of riders carrying flags and flanking the entrance to the cemetery. He doesn’t ride anymore, he said. His back’s too screwed up. You don’t have to ride to join the Patriot Guard. You don’t have to have even served.

At the back of the chapel, where the hearse was waiting, more riders lined the back entryway, chaps and vests and patches declaring their years served. A group of Casper and Evansville firefighters, police officers and sheriff’s deputies milled about. A rider produced a beige envelope and pulled out white gloves for the first responders to wear as they carried the remains, and the folded flags that accompanied them, into the chapel, where they were placed onto a table covered in a black sheet.

Inside, the room was quiet. Some men standing in the pews saluted as the bags and the remains within them were carried in. Others stood with their hands over their hearts. In front of the table stood Jeff Mansfield, whose wife, Tammy, was the impetus that brought these 23 men from the funeral home in Sheridan to the cemetery in Evansville. Jeff is a servicemember. In fact, he’s preparing for a deployment. He’s leaving with his National Guard unit in November.

Jeff, who was in uniform and wore a wide-brimmed cavalry hat, carefully arranged the flags behind the boxes. As each one was placed, he arranged them, stepped back and saluted. He did this 23 times, until the boxes were all placed.

The chapel filled up, until all of its 15 pews were full. More people lined the walls and stood in the entryway at the back. Gov. Mark Gordon was there. Men in uniform, men in T-shirts, women in dresses and casual clothes filled the rows. A young boy, Cillian Roberts, entered with his grandma, Amy Whinnery. Cillian was wearing an American flag shirt, jeans and a plastic camouflage helmet. He carried an American flag and a toy from the new “Toy Story” movie. His grandfather served, Amy explained. He’s buried in this cemetery. They were going to visit him after the service.

“He has to learn,” she said of little Cillian.

The ceremony began. A letter from Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wy., was read. Gordon stood to speak, telling a story about a family friend who had a brick from the old White House, the one the British burned 205 years ago. Tammy Mansfield, who Gordon credits with making all of this possible, is the president of the Daughters of 1812 chapter in Wyoming.

Rev. Dan Odell took the lectern to give an opening prayer and read Psalm 23 (“The lord is my shepherd ... “). Bob Williams, who’s an active member of the Wyoming chapter of the Disabled American Veterans, took off his side cap — those triangle-like hats VFW members wear. He slung it over his left shoulder and kept his right hand on the bottom of it, over his heart. The cap declares Williams as a life member. It has the insignia of his rank, plus a pin of a bucking cowboy.

On stage, Gary Cohee of the VFW read the names of the men and their hometowns. When he got to the one Casper native, Army veteran Terrance Birr, Tammy nodded slightly. She was sitting in the front row and occasionally dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. She and Jeff held hands.

Cohee then asked God to welcome the “departed comrades who answered the blare of the bugle, the rough of the drums, and whose glory will never fade.” From the back, a bagpiper played “Amazing Grace.” Six pipers marched to the front of the room, and all six took up the hymn, until the sound was deafening.

Five of the pipes went quiet again, and the musicians marched back out. Cecil Barnes, who as the head of the local veterans’ council was presiding over his 3,000th service, asked current and former military members to stand and salute. Outside, the unmistakable bark of an officer commanded an unseen honor guard. Two rifles cracked three times.

Taps played over the loudspeaker. Two members of the honor guard strode to the front of the room and took one of the flags from the table. They unfolded it, taking the triangle and turning it into a strip and then a rectangle. Then they refolded it. Rectangle, strip, triangle. One soldier clutched it to her chest and inspected it, running her white gloves over the tightly-folded triangle. She presented it to the other soldier and saluted.

The man then took the flag over to Tammy. She tearfully accepted it and thanked him. She deposited a used tissue into her purse.

After some speeches thanking Barnes for his 3,000th service, the service ended with the chapel singing the national anthem and then reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

With the service over, the room emptied. The dignitaries and veterans and the Mansfields and the Patriot Guard riders spilled outside onto the immaculate grass, where reporters awaited and the motorcycle riders chatted with older veterans in suits and side caps. The six bagpipers stood on the lawn in a circle. Bob Williams and his wife headed for their car.

Inside the chapel, little Cillian approached the covered remains. He touched a ribbon and the dog tags attached to it. He still held the American flag in his hand. His plastic helmet still sat on his head. He posed for a photo next to the table, smiling. Outside, the bagpipers played again.

Then Cillian and his family left, too. The chapel was completely empty, save for the 23 men and Eunice Dickerson. She stood at the front of the room. She studied the remains and their soft bags for a moment. She leaned in for a closer look and then drew herself up and saluted, a smooth mechanical movement, the product of practice. She turned on her heel and walked back to a middle pew.

The chatter and bright sunlight from outside spilled into the room through an open side door. The bagpipes stopped. A couple of men walked into the chapel, talking quietly to each other. Dickerson, whose face was heavy with emotion, sat a moment longer. Then she blew her nose, and a moment later, she walked out.

©2019 Casper Star Tribune, Wyo.
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