Veterans laid to rest

Published 10:49 pm Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Virginia National Guard helped provide a proper burial with full military honors for 10 veterans whose remains had been left unclaimed for years on Veteran’s Day at the Albert G. Horton Jr. Memorial Veterans Cemetery.

We don’t know the stories of the 10 veterans or why their ashes sat for years — even decades — on shelves.

But on Veteran’s Day 2010, they arrived at their final resting place.

“For years, they’d been left abandoned and forgotten,” said Steven Combs, director of policy and planning for the Virginia Department of Veterans Services. “Now, they can rest in the honor and glory they deserve among other veterans who sacrificed for our country.”

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Motioning to the thousands of graves at Albert G. Horton Jr. Memorial Veterans Cemetery on Milners Road in Suffolk, Combs added, “They’re among family now. They’re home.”

Among the veterans buried yesterday, the most recently dead passed away in 2007. Several had been left unburied since the 1990s, and one veteran, born in 1910, had been left at a funeral home since 1988.

According to Susan Ulrich, cemetery office manager, five of the veterans served in the U.S. Army. Two were veteran Marines, two were former sailors and one served in the U.S. Air Force.

The remains were brought to the cemetery with an escort of 86 Patriot Guard Riders.

“For whatever reason, these men did not have family to care for them in their death, but we’re their family,” said Charlie Warthling, a Patriot Guard Rider and Navy veteran. “They’re not alone. They’ll never be forgotten. We just wanted to bring them home.”

A crowd gathered for the ceremony in which the veterans received an inurnment with full military honors by the Virginia National Guard.

The remains were brought to rest at the cemetery through the efforts of the Virginia Military Funeral Honors for Unclaimed Veterans’ Cremains program, the Virginia Missing in America program, the Marine Corps League and the cemetery.

The league was a motivating force in bringing the veterans to rest.

“We’ve been working on this for two years now,” said John Bonnell, legislative officer of the Marine Corps League. “There are thousands upon thousands of unclaimed remains in funeral homes throughout the nation and Virginia. I think it’s a disgrace, but it does happen. This is a way to set things straight. It was our goal to bring the veterans that were among them to rest.”

Funeral homes are regularly asked to supply a list of unclaimed persons, which are then run through a database to identify any veterans that may be amongst them. Arrangements are then made provide a proper burial for the veterans.

It took Ulrich about a month to verify the service of 10 veterans from a list of 14 from Sturtevant Funeral Home in Portsmouth. One veteran was claimed by his family before the burial, but Ulrich found one unclaimed body at the Medical Examiner’s office in Norfolk was that of a veteran and worked to secure his remains for a proper burial.

Bonnell and Dan Kemano, director of the cemetery and Navy retiree, both said they plan to make the veterans’ burial a quarterly event at the cemetery, and Bonnell hopes to bring the program to the two other veteran cemeteries in Virginia.

So far, Bonnell said there have no additional funeral homes to come forward with unclaimed remains, but he hopes that this burial will be a catalyst to help give veterans the dignity they deserve.

“I hope this gets the attention of funeral homes,” Kemano added. “We just want to identify the veterans who have served our country. For whatever reason, their families haven’t claimed them, but we’re a family here. Let’s bring them home.”