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For ‘unclaimed’ veterans, strangers become family at burial services: ‘We let them know that they’re not alone’

A color guard from the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (Old Guard) helps conduct military funeral honors with funeral escort for U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Chaturbhuj Gidwani in Section 71 of Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, Oct. 23, 2018. (U.S. Army photo by Elizabeth Fraser / Arlington National Cemetery / released)

There were no relatives at Vietnam veteran Stephen Jerald Spicer’s funeral, but his passing didn’t go unnoticed as a few dozen patriotic strangers showed up to honor his service.

American flags fluttered behind a procession of motorcycles that escorted a hearse carrying Spicer’s black casket with gold trim ?— the Army’s signature colors ?— from Woodlawn Funeral Home in Gotha for 50 miles to Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell.

Spicer, 72, died June 14 and was designated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as an “unclaimed veteran” — someone who doesn’t have a next of kin to claim their remains.

The Longwood resident is among more than 3,000 unclaimed veterans nationwide who have been buried with full military honors through the Dignity Memorial Homeless Veterans Burial Program.

The program, which launched in 2000, was “founded upon the belief that every veteran deserves a dignified and honorable burial,” spokeswoman Ashley Bunton said.

The funeral homes under the Dignity Memorial network provide the casket, transportation to the cemetery and coordinate the funeral services.

The VA covers the cost of the opening and closing of the grave, a headstone or marker and burial in a national cemetery.

Nonprofit organizations such as the Patriot Guard Riders and the American Legion Riders often lead processions on motorcycles after a request from a funeral home director.

David Shelton of St. Cloud, Florida state captain for the Patriot Guard Riders, said members view all fallen veterans as family even if they’ve never met. The organization provides escorts to about 800 funerals in the state each year.

“They are our fellow brothers and sisters who put themselves in harm’s way at one time or another for the freedoms that we have today in this country that we cherish,” said Shelton, 65, who served in Air Force for 20 years. “We let them know that they’re not alone.”

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings spoke at Spicer’s service Thursday about the importance of community support for homeless veterans. The number of homeless veterans in Central Florida has dropped by nearly 74% since 2010, but there are only about 17,000 veterans in Orange County out of 70,000 who are receiving any type of benefits.

“Unfortunately, many veterans do not know they are eligible for benefits, and still more are unaware that the county is here to help,” Demings said.

Spicer, an Oak Park, Ill., native, wasn’t living on the streets when he died. He spent the last eight years at All Stars Assisted Living Facility in Seminole County.

In Spicer’s obituary, his caretakers, Robert and Mary Singh, said he “was a good man with whom they shared laughter.”

“He never asked for much, was content and grateful,” the couple wrote.


© 2019 The Orlando Sentinel