Providing a decent last stop for homeless veterans

mquillin@newsobserver.comNovember 9, 2013 

— In the last years of his life, Garry Shelton Hammonds was mostly alone: in his thoughts, on the streets of his hometown of Wingate, and in his struggle with whatever haunted him from his Army service in Korea during the Vietnam War.

Like many other homeless veterans, Hammonds finally died alone, on a Tuesday afternoon last month following a stroke.

Erin Amelung didn’t want Hammonds’ body to leave this world that way, too.

In North Carolina, when no family member can – or will – claim the body of an indigent loved one, the county will have a funeral home cremate the remains and dispose of the ashes. There is no funeral, no burial, no gravesite and no marker at which to lay flowers.

“We don’t want that for our veterans,” said Amelung, who arranges military rites for veterans who die homeless or penniless. She does the work as a charity of McEwen Funeral Home in Mint Hill, near Charlotte. McEwen, owned by industry giant Dignity Memorial of Houston, is the only funeral home in North Carolina that does this work.

A veteran’s daughter herself, Amelung wanted for Hammonds what every veteran who served honorably is entitled to have.

“A proper burial,” she said. “He deserves that. They all do.”

The government promises to provide any veteran who was honorably discharged a two-man honor guard, a cemetery plot and a marker; it doesn’t supply a casket or pay for cremation or an urn for ashes. But many vets and their families don’t know these benefits are available, or maybe they prefer burial in a family plot or a church cemetery without the added fanfare.

In any case, the government only provides the benefits if they are requested by a family member or a funeral home.

Veterans who have spent years on the street or in and out of shelters may never tell anyone of their military past, let alone ask the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to make sure they get a formal sendoff when they die. And once they’re gone, there may be no one who knows – or cares – to ask on the veteran’s behalf.

1,138 homeless veterans

Across the country, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates there are more than 62,600 homeless vets on any given night, but about twice that many experience homelessness throughout the year. While only 7 percent of the general population can claim veteran status, 10 percent of the adult homeless population are veterans, according to HUD, which conducts a point-in-time count of the homeless each January.

In North Carolina, HUD counted 1,138 homeless veterans this year.

No one keeps track of how many homeless veterans die each year or what happens to their remains, which varies from place to place.

“When we’re dealing with an unclaimed body, frankly, it’s outside our statutory responsibility to try to ascertain whether it’s an unclaimed veteran’s body,” said Bob Sorrels, deputy director of Wake County Human Services. “That just takes more time.”

The grim scenario may go something like this: Emergency dispatchers get a call that someone is lying dead, sick or injured on a roadside. An ambulance takes the person to the hospital, where he or she is declared dead. The body is sent to storage – perhaps at a local morgue, or at a funeral home that performs the duty under contract – while a social services agency tries to locate a relative.

Maybe the deceased has one sister, but she hasn’t talked to her sibling in years. She says she can’t afford to pay for funeral or burial expenses, and there is no other family.

In Wake County, that means the remains would be sent to Poole Funeral Service and Crematory, which would cremate the body and dispose of the ashes.

If the person has a VA card in a pocket or if the sister mentions that the sibling served in the military, the county will refer her to its veterans services officer, who can put her in touch with the VA.

There, a social worker can research the veteran’s military history. If they can verify the person served and was honorably discharged, he or she is eligible for burial benefits. But in most places, the sister still will have to come up with the money for cremation or embalming and a casket, so there’s something to take to the cemetery. If the county pays for cremation, the ashes generally are not returned.

‘They bring the ashes’

At one time, veterans, including the homeless and the indigent, could be buried at one of four national cemeteries in North Carolina: Wilmington, Greensboro, Raleigh and Salisbury. All but one – Salisbury – are now full. In the 1990s, the state opened three veterans cemeteries to serve that need.

“We get a few homeless veterans every year,” said Eli Panee, who oversees the state veterans cemeteries located in Jacksonville, Spring Lake and Black Mountain. The cemetery can’t arrange for a burial service, but sometimes, Panee said, a funeral home will line up an honor guard and maybe a chaplain to say a few words.

Other times, he said, “They just bring the ashes to us, and we just go ahead and bury them. It’s very sad.”

Sad, Amelung said, is when a veteran has relatives who could afford a funeral and burial but refuse to claim the body or even attend the service she arranges.

Amelung has arranged a lot of burial services for veterans at which she and another McEwen employee were the only ones present, except for the volunteers performing the rites.

“When we get a veteran, if I can find a family member, one of the things I always ask them is, ‘When was the last time you talked to him?’

“And they’ll say, ‘I don’t know, a year ago? Two years, five years, 10?’”

A troubled life

Theodore Roosevelt Hammonds can’t remember exactly when he last spoke with his younger brother before Garry Hammonds suffered the stroke that ended his life at age 60. It was at least a year, Hammonds said; he’d finally got fed up with his brother, who had a number of physical ailments but suffered most from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“That was his main problem,” he said. “It just overtook him. I’ve been called 100 times to come and see about him. He stayed here, there – all over. They’d find him in the middle of the road.”

Hammonds, a disabled veteran himself, tried to get his brother to go to counseling, which doctors at the Salisbury VA Medical Center recommended as well.

“He was stubborn,” he said. “He’d make appointments, but then he wouldn’t show up. I tried to help him, but you can only do so much.”

Amelung is unburdened by the frustrations that can cause homeless veterans to be estranged from friends and family. So when she gets a call about an old soldier, sailor, airman or Marine who was living on the street when he died, she treats each one the same.

She calls the National Cemetery Scheduling Center in St. Louis to arrange a date and time at the cemetery in Salisbury, which does five burials every weekday. She sends a request to the N.C. National Guard for an honor guard detail, which usually consists of a bugler and a flag handler. She gets in touch with the Piedmont District of the N.C. Patriot Guard, whose volunteers provide motorcycle escorts for veterans’ funeral processions and can serve as pallbearers, too.

She lines up a speaker – often Lewis Reid, a veteran who has spent 18 years as a volunteer for the Rowan County Honor Guard.

Amelung has no military experience. A native of Florida, she got a degree in psychology before developing a deep interest in mortuary science and going back to school. She has worked for McEwen since 2005.

After she volunteered to start this service in North Carolina, when Dignity Memorial expanded it from other regions in 2009, Amelung spent a year going around to veterans groups in several counties explaining what the funeral home would do and asking them to spread the word. The company would pick up the veteran’s body, embalm it, dress it in donated clothing, provide a casket and transport it to the national cemetery in Salisbury.

If she charged for the services, each veteran’s burial would run at least $3,000.

The rare large service

At first, she said, she got one veteran every couple of months. Now she gets two or three each month.

“We’ve got it down to a science now,” Amelung said. The Patriot Guard riders gather a half-hour before the service in the parking lot of a local VFW post about a mile from the cemetery. The hearse pulls up, stops in the road, and the bikes roll out – often 30 or more – driven mostly by men with jeans, leather jackets and their own military histories.

The procession rumbles past the VA hospital, rounds a corner onto a four-lane boulevard and rolls through the gates of the sprawling green burial ground that started during the Civil War as a repository for the bones of Union soldiers who died while imprisoned nearby.

Amelung was pretty sure Garry Hammonds’ brother would attend his service, held on a bright October morning when a cold breeze lifted cemetery flags off their poles. But she was surprised to see a couple of dozen family members, some of whom had driven from out of state.

Reid gave the same homily he would have performed if not a single family member had made the trip. It’s the one he gives at all veterans’ funerals where he is asked to speak, whether they slept in homeless shelters or served on town councils. It comes from a 1950s edition of the American Legion handbook, but he starts each one with his own introduction.

“Another soldier has been called to the high command,” he said after the Patriot Guard pallbearers set Hammonds’ gray casket on a pedestal in the cemetery pavilion.

“He is going to meet the greatest commander of all.”

Returned to the brotherhood

When he finished, a rifle detail, part of the local honor guard, fired three rounds for duty, honor and country. A bugler played taps. Two more white-gloved honor guardsmen removed the flag from Hammonds’ casket, folded it into a tight triangle and presented it to Theodore Roosevelt Hammonds on behalf of a grateful nation.

He was so proud he didn’t know what to do, Hammonds said later.

After the family left, cemetery workers – all veterans – hauled the casket to Section 12, Site 1300, and put it in the ground. Ric Lester, one of the caretakers, tamped down the dirt and put in a temporary marker to be replaced in a few weeks with one of engraved marble.

The simple white stone will be centered exactly 36 inches from the ones to its left and right, which are each 36 inches from the next, row after row after row.

After all those years of wandering, never fitting in, Hammonds was finally back in the brotherhood.

“It makes me feel good to know that they are being buried in a place with veterans who were in the same situation they were in,” Amelung said.

“Now they can all be together.”

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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