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thedrifter
06-04-07, 07:52 AM
Group ensures veterans get proper burials
By Chris Roberts / El Paso Times
El Paso Times
Article Launched:05/27/2007 12:00:00 AM MDT

No family or friends attended retired Sgt. Willie Clyde Tehart's burial Friday, but he was not alone.

Although Tehart, who died at 68 with more than 20 years of Army service, was laid to rest in a plain wooden coffin painted black, he received full military honors during his burial at Fort Bliss National Cemetery. Over his coffin was draped a U.S. flag, which was meticulously folded and inspected. He received a three-volley salute, and a bugler played taps.

"He gave for the freedom you and I now enjoy," said Chaplain Ray Jennings, with the American Legion Post 36. "He went wherever the military sent him and did whatever his supervisors told him to do."

Tehart is one of a relatively small number of veterans who become estranged from family members or who simply outlive them, said Yolanda McKinney, co-chairwoman of the El Paso Homeless Veterans Burial Program Committee, a group that makes sure old troopers don't go unrecognized.

Tehart wasn't indigent or homeless, but the committee takes care of all former service members whose family members cannot be found or who decline to participate. Since 2003, only nine service members have been homeless or indigent, said Mary Slawson, of Kaster-Maxon Futrell Funeral Home in El Paso.

The home is part of the Dignity Memorial group of cemeteries, mortuaries and funeral homes nationwide that pay for the funerals and burials of indigent veterans.

Tehart made friends with clinicians at the Veterans Administration where he was receiving treatment, McKinney said. Tehart died in February, and the months since then were spent trying to find family, she said.

"The weather is good here, and many times when we come back from battle, we have a lot of post-traumatic stress disorder and just don't want to go home anymore," said Joe Lopez, commander of the honor guard for Dignity Memorial, who read a poem at Tehart's burial.

The program is "outstanding," said Gene B. Linxwiler, director of the Fort Bliss National Cemetery. "They put in a lot of effort, and they put in a service to a lot of veterans who would not be honored at the time of their interment."

Linxwiler said the cemetery provides burials without charge to veterans who, in general, were honorably discharged and completed their term of service. That includes use of a shelter, a headstone, perpetual maintenance of the grave, and a presidential memorial certificate.

Cemeteries in larger urban areas often have monthly memorial services for what are called "unaccompanied veterans."

In El Paso, veterans organizations attend the services and provide other support, McKinney said. The Marines stand out, she added.

"We still do the full honors even though there's no one there," said 1st Sgt. James Porter, spokesman for the Marine training center in Northeast El Paso.

On May 11, Marine Pvt. Robert Kyryl was buried at Fort Bliss National Cemetery with full honors.

Sgt. Michael Mascari, who has been stationed in El Paso since 2005, is responsible for the program and folded the flag for Kyryl. He said little was known about him.

"For the Marine that didn't have any family or next of kin, (we) do make a presence so veterans are not buried alone," Mascari said. "We feel that's the right thing to do. We are taking care of those who took care of us."

Asked whether he thought it was a duty, he responded: "In a sense, I guess you could say that, but more than that, it's an honor. (Nothing else matters), he was a Marine."

Whether the veterans left enough money to pay for the funeral services or were indigent, "we go (to the burial) just to witness the last rites and all,"McKinney said. "That's all we're here for, to make sure nothing falls through the cracks and for somebody to be there at the end."

Chris Roberts may be reached at chrisr@elpasotimes.com; 546-6136.

Ellie