From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key:
HIGGINSVILLE — At long last, they are at rest.
With full military honors, the cremated remains of 16 veterans and two wives were interred July 1 at the Higginsville State Veterans Cemetery years, and in most cases decades, after their deaths.
The remains had gone unclaimed and stored at Mt. Moriah South Cemetery in Kansas City until passage of a bill last year in the Missouri General Assembly allowed a veterans’ organization to claim them if no family could be found.
“They are veterans,” said Vernon Scott, commander of Veterans’ of Foreign Wars Joel E. Balcolm Post 1738 in Independence. “It doesn’t make any difference what branch of the service. This is what we do. We help veterans.”
The VFW post and American Legion Post 189 in Lee’s Summit claimed the remains of the veterans under provisions of the new Missouri law so that they could finally be given a proper burial.
And it took months of research through documents to determine that the veterans did indeed qualify for a burial with honors, said Rich Carroll of McGilley-Sheil Funeral Home.
Nearly as soon as the legislation was signed by Gov. Jay Nixon last year, McGilley-Sheil assigned staff to pore over death certificates and other documentation to determine if any of the hundreds of unclaimed cremated remains the funeral home had stored were those of military veterans, and thus eligible for burial in a network of five new military cemeteries under the control of the Missouri Veterans Commission.
The 16 veterans identified for the July 1 service are only the beginning, Carroll said. The national Dignity Memorial network is working with the Missing in America Project to identify unclaimed remains of other veterans eligible for military burial, and those numbers could easily reached into the thousands nationally and into the hundreds in the Kansas City area alone.
In addition to the research, McGilley-Sheil also made the arrangements for the burial service without charge.
Carroll said nearly nothing is known about the 16 veterans who, until July 1, were forgotten.
“Their stories are as varied as the individuals themselves,” he said. “Possibly, they had no children or other family to claim them. Or it may have been a financial burden. But it is the right thing to do to find these folks and get this done.”
Carroll also knew who to contact to preside at the service. Father David Holloway, pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Kansas City and a Navy veteran with 21 years of active duty service as both an enlisted man and a chaplain, was more than willing.
“I feel a connection, even though I don’t know any of them,” Father Holloway told The Catholic Key. “It is important, especially in our church, to be the spokesman for all who are forgotten. Just because a person died without family doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a family in the church.”
In his brief homily, Father Holloway said he had presided before at military funerals, “but none quite like this.”
“We are grateful for those who served, and for those who continue to serve,” he said.
“They are not forgotten. They are appreciated. They are finally cared for and honored for what they did,” Father Holloway said.
“We did not know them, but what they did continues to shape our country,” he said. “We place our hope in a God who never gives up on us, and we gather to be an expression of God’s love for those who may not have found much love in their lives.”
Missouri National Guard Brig. Gen. Larry D. Kay, who is executive director of the Missouri Veterans Commission, also bestowed state combat medals on 14 of the 16 veterans for their service in wars ranging from World War I to Vietnam.
Like the burials, the medals were also long overdue, he told The Catholic Key. He also expressed the hope that the Higginsville service was just the first in a long line of burial services for once-forgotten veterans.
“This is a debt we owe these veterans, and a debt we can repay,” he said.
“It is our honor and privilege to care for them as they cared for others,” Kay said. “We want to get the word out that we are ready to give a resting place with dignity and honor to these veterans.”
A special military honors unit from Warrensburg, in full dress uniform and under the command of Army First Sgt. (retired) Carla Caldwell, provided the bugler playing taps, the 21-gun salute, and the presentation of the flag, accepted by Higginsville State Veterans Cemetery director Jess Rasmussen in lieu of family.
The crowd that jammed into the cemetery’s small chapel included VFW members, American Legion members, members of the Patriot Guard who provided a motorcycle escort for the hearse bearing the remains from Kansas City, and three special guests.
Charlotte Myers-Dick, Diana Pitts and Jennifer Jackman came as Gold Star mothers who have recently lost sons in military service.
Army Specialist Eddie Myers was killed July 27, 2005, by a pipe bomb in Samarra, Iraq. Army Cpl. David Unger, Pitts’s son, was killed Oct. 17, 2006, also by a pipe bomb, in Baghdad. Marine Lt. Ryan Jackman was killed in an automobile accident as he was returning to Camp Pendleton, just weeks before his deployment to Iraq.
The death of their sons, Jackman said, gave them a link to all who sacrificed for their country.
“One of our (Gold Star Mothers) founding principles is that our sons and daughters are best remembered by our loving current veterans,” Jackman said. “We find comfort that we can go forward by serving others.”
It didn’t matter whether or not they knew the forgotten 16 veterans and their spouses interred that day, said Pitts.
“They were someone’s sons, and now they have become our sons,” she said.
The veterans, with their dates of military service, and spouses who were finally laid to rest are:
- Gervis J. Adney, private, U.S. Army, 1917-19. Adney was awarded the Missouri medal for service in World War I. He died April 28, 1989.
- Mary Adney, spouse of Gervis Adney, date of death unknown.
- Jacinto Ordaz Briones, seaman first class, U. S. Navy, 1943-44. He died Nov. 2, 1998.
- Ralph H. Cruse, technician fifth class, U.S. Army, 1942-45. Cruse was awarded the Missouri medal for service in World War II. He died Jan. 30, 1995.
- Dorothy M. Cruse, wife of Ralph Cruse, who died Feb. 10, 2000.
- Thomas James Head, master sergeant, U.S. Army Air Force and U.S. Air Force, 1942-66. Head was awarded three Missouri medals for service in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He died April 1, 2008.
- Harold P. Lederman, lieutenant, U.S. Army, 1917-1919. Lederman was awarded the Missouri medal for service in World War I. He died Jan. 23, 1964.
- Edward Herman Lewenight, private, U.S. Marine Corps, 1918-19, and private, U.S. Army, 1943. Lewenight was awarded two Missouri medals for service in World War I and World War II. He died March 23, 1984.
- William W. Miller, private, U.S. Army, 1942-43. Miller was awarded the Missouri medal for service in World War II. He died March 7, 1990.
- Clifford C. Neuse, private, U.S. Army, 1942-43. Neuse was awarded the Missouri medal for service in World War II. He died Nov. 20, 1986.
- James W. Peer, private, U.S. Army, 1943-46. Peer was awarded the Missouri medal for service in World War II. He died March 4, 1989.
- Verne Lyle Pickens, seaman second class, U.S. Navy, 1918-21. Pickens was awarded the Missouri medal for service in World War I. He died Nov. 25, 1993.
- Alfred F. Scholz, lieutenant colonel, U.S. Air Force, 1961-81. Scholz was awarded the Missouri medal for service in Vietnam. He died Nov. 28, 1994.
- Thomas E. Singleton, eletrician’s mate petty officer second class, U.S. Navy, 1950-54. Singleton was awarded the Missouri medal for service in Korea. He died April 14, 1988.
- Russell D. Stanford, private, U.S. Army, 1976. He died June 28, 1998.
- Earl W. Swesey, corporal, U.S. Army, 1944-46. Swesey was awarded the Missouri medal for service in World War II. He died Dec. 13, 1987.
- David R. Woodhead, lieutenant commander, U.S. Navy, 1966-68. Woodhead was awarded the Missouri medal for service in Vietnam. He died Sept. 7, 1993.