None of those who gathered Wednesday at the South Florida National Cemetery, knew any of the 24 people whose ashes lay in wood urns lined up on a table.
But they snapped to attention and saluted. Or those who weren’t veterans held hands to hearts.
They sang God Bless America. And stood silently on a hot November morning as a lone bugler, standing off by himself, sent the sounds of taps through the trees in this hallowed ground west of Lantana.
The national nonprofit Missing in America Project was interring, with full military honors, the remains of 19 veterans and five spouses of veterans. All had lain unclaimed in South Florida funeral homes, some for decades.
Statewide since 2012, the group has interred 340 unclaimed veterans, 124 spouses and one infant child of a veteran.
Florida coordinator Kathy Church said the group surveys area funeral homes for unclaimed remains. In some cases, Church said, relatives decided they just didn’t want the ashes. Or the family had a falling-out. Or a spouse who’d promised that ashes would be buried together, instead remarried, or moved away, or both.
She said some people were cremated under a county contract but no one came for them at all.
Of the 19 Wednesday, three were from the Vietnam era, one from Korea and 12 from World War II. Remarkably, three had served more than a century ago during World War I.
Army technician Theodore Roosevelt Grebey – born in 1914, five years after his namesake left the presidency – served during World War II. His ashes have lain unclaimed for more than 50 years since his death in 1968.
All 24 of these were from Broward and Miami-Dade counties. None were from Palm Beach, but they will lie in repose here, at the only official veterans’ cemetery in South Florida.
“Today they will be laid to rest at this treasured space,” said Kim House, chaplain at the VA Medical Center in Riviera Beach.
“These soldiers, marines and sailors left home, left their families, left everything they knew, in service to our nation,” cemetery director Sonny Peppers told the assembled.
“I do not believe they expected to be abandoned, unclaimed and unrecognized as they made their final bivouac,” Peppers said. Now, he said, “they are no longer forgotten, no longer unknown, and no longer alone.”
At the ceremony were an honor guard from Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue and a ladder truck flying a massive Stars and Stripes. Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue bagpipers played a medley of anthems from the branches represented.
“No soldier,” an etching on a nearby bench said, “should ever be forgotten.”
On the table, the ashes of veterans were accompanied by folded U.S. flags, as tradition demands.
In front of the table, two active-duty U.S. Army soldiers stretched a flag all the way out, then painstakingly turned and twisted and folded until it formed the iconic triangle.
One handed the flag to Dawn Lemongello of Palm Beach Gardens, national treasurer-general of Daughters of the American Revolution, as a representative of all 24. The soldier intoned the words heard so many times. The ones said every time at events such as these. But, it seems, never often enough.
Thank you, he said. From “a grateful nation.”
As each name was read, for the 19 who were veterans, a sailor did a double-ring on a gold bell. Bagpipers played “Amazing Grace” as the procession moved to a columbarium, a wall of niches.
Flanked by teens from ROTC programs at Seminole Ridge, Jupiter and Lake Worth high schools, and motorcycle riders from Patriot Guard and the American Legion, volunteers walked the 24 urns to Columbarium 56. Each urn was placed in its niche, with a volunteer again intoning each name again.
And a coin went in before each niche was sealed. As a forget-me-not.
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