KILLEEN, Texas — Thousands showed up at the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery Monday to attend the burial service for an unaccompanied U.S. Air Force Veteran.
The Texas General Land Office announced plans for Joseph Walker's burial on its Facebook page on Jan. 25 which was then shared hundreds of times.
Deputy Director for Texas State Veterans Cemeteries Eric Brown, said 97 of these unaccompanied burials have been held since 1997.
Brown said this one gained national attention after CNN anchor, Jake Tapper, tweeted out details about the service. It was retweeted thousands of times.
Sen. Ted Cruz also tweeted about the service which was retweeted nearly 2,000 times.
Brown said the total number of people who attended could end up in excess of 2,000.
The last unaccompanied burial on Jan. 3 was attended by about 100 people, Brown said.
Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery staff coordinated with the Fort Hood Casualty Office to ensure Walker received full military honors, according to a press release from the GLO.
A motorcycle club known as the Wind Therapy Freedom Riders also spread the word through social media.
Walker served in the Air Force from September 1964 to September 1968, including service in the Vietnam War.
According to GLO spokeswoman Karina Erickson, proper burial for unaccompanied veterans began in 2015.
Erickson told Channel 6 sister station, KVUE, Walker had a regular service set for the beginning of December, but for some reason, it was pushed back to the end of January.
When asked about the turnout for Walker's funeral, Erickson said she was pleasantly surprised by the turnout.
"This was by far the largest outpouring of support we have seen," she said. "It was absolutely amazing to see this many people come together, knowing nothing about Mr. Walker and having no connection to him, and honor him as he was buried."
If you would like to make sure no veteran is left alone, you can call 521-616-1770 to get on an email list that will notify you of all upcoming unaccompanied burials.
Erickson outlined the differences between the procedures for unaccompanied veteran burials before and after 2015.
Prior to the Jan. 2015 implementation:
- Veterans were brought into the cemetery and “direct no witness” burials took place. (remains brought to the cemetery and interred with no honors or recognition of their military service)
- Veterans were often buried in Paupers/County graves with no headstones.
- Counties and local funeral homes were burdened with the Veterans remains and how to properly seek honorable disposition.
- County judges were left to make decisions on accepting responsibility for disposition of the Veterans remains. (Many stepped up as it was the right thing to do)
- Many in the local and surrounding communities were not aware Veterans were interred alone.
- Veterans were sometimes buried in heavy cardboard type containers, as VA would not fund a casket for homeless or indigent Veterans unless they were interred at a national cemetery. After inquiries and requests from state programs, including the Texas State Veterans Cemeteries, VA agreed to fund caskets for indigent/homeless Veterans interred at state and tribal cemeteries.
- Veterans are all afforded free headstones, but these would often end up stacked up at cemetery facilities, due to costs associated with installing the headstones and no family to complete.
- Care facilities, Nursing facilities, and Long-Term care facilities were not aware the Patriots could be handed off to the state Veterans cemeteries for honorable and dignified services.
After the Unaccompanied Veterans Program 2015 implementation:
- All eligible Veterans are now interred with honor and dignity, regardless of where they may have found themselves in life. The absence of next-of-kin may occur for a variety of reasons, such as:
- The aging Veterans next-of-kin may have died off and survivors cannot be located
- Veterans may have separated themselves from next-of-kin due to family discord
- Veterans may suffer mental health issues or other ailments leading to societal isolation
- Texas State Veterans Cemeteries bolstered relationships with community stakeholders, such as local funeral homes, county services, and local judges, to ensure the Veterans are given honorable and dignified services.
- Communities have provided significant and overwhelming support for the Unaccompanied Veterans Services, with considerable turnouts to support and honor the Veteran during this right of passage.
- The term “Homeless Veteran” was dropped in lieu of “Unaccompanied Veteran” early during the implementation of these standard interments. The program felt the absence of next-of-kin should not factor into defining the Veteran as homeless. When the representatives of the Texas Veterans Land Board accept the flag during the services, we do so as members of the military family. We accept the Veterans remains to be placed in hallowed grounds among other military family members.
- Children are often brought to the services by parents and educators to highlight the importance of service, sacrifice, and honor.
- The Unaccompanied Veterans Services stand as testaments to the respect and understanding the communities have of the value of the military family. Although the Veterans may not have families or next-of-kin present for their homegoing celebrations, they can rest peacefully knowing the military family never forget and never leaves a Veteran behind.
- Unaccompanied Services have unintentionally led to reunification of families and next-of-kin.
- On several occasions, family and/or next-of-kin have shown up unexpectedly after picking up the news of a pending Unaccompanied Veterans services via social media, news, community notifications.
- Veterans Land Board Representatives accept the flag used during the services on behalf of the family and/or next-of-kin but hold the flag for 90 days if no next-of-kin is found or comes forward. After the 90-day period expires, the flag is flown on the cemetery main flag pole to honor the Veterans service and as a reminder that we never leave Veterans behind.
- Several community members donate resources, time, and effort to ensure an honorable and dignified service:
- A local flower shop in the Killeen area donates free floral arrangements for each Unaccompanied Veteran service.
- Members of the all volunteer Memorial Service Detachments (MSD) provide military honors.
- Patriot Guard Riders (motorcycle club of Veterans) volunteer to lead procession into the cemeteries and assist with overseeing all aspects of the services.
- Our cemeteries have dedicated walls of honor, which began with the Coastal Bend State Veterans Cemetery in Corpus Christi, to honor interred Unaccompanied Veterans. Local Veterans groups create and present small wooden placards to cemetery staff, consisting of the Veterans information, which proudly hang on the administrative building walls.