The story from the Post Dispatch:
St. Louis area vets lay homeless comrades to rest
By Christine Byers
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Bill Branson was working as a funeral director in south St. Louis when a
family asked him to help them find the remains of their loved one.
It was about 35 years ago. All they could tell him was the man's name, that
he might have lived in the area and that he was a highly decorated World
War II veteran.
He can't remember the veteran's name, but Branson, a retired U.S. major
general himself, will never forget the feeling he had when he discovered
the fellow veteran's final resting place was a potter's field.
"The family wanted to move him to Jefferson Barracks, but nobody knew for
sure which grave was his," Branson recalled. "So they decided to leave him
where he was and did nothing about it. It stuck with me."
About nine years ago, Branson shared the memory over lunch with a friend
and fellow veteran, Joe Frank, now chairman of the Missouri Veterans
Commission. The moment became the inspiration behind a nationwide movement
to ensure that homeless veterans are buried with full military honors.
Branson and a crowd of about 75 watched Thursday as the Homeless Veterans
Burial Program laid its 74th and 75th veterans to rest at Jefferson
Barracks National Cemetery — bringing the number of homeless veterans
buried with honors to 540 nationwide.
"We have veterans sleeping in boxes, cars and underneath bridges," Branson
said. "And the government has no program for veterans when life ends."
Life ended in December for the veterans honored Thursday.
Michael Ballard, 53, was found Dec. 17 on the loading dock of a warehouse
south of downtown. He served in the Navy from 1972 to 1976.
Marc Milne, 56, was found Dec. 26 at the cafeteria in St. Louis County
where he worked and had been living. He served in the Coast Guard from 1972
Both were honorably discharged — a requirement to be buried within the
Medical examiners in the city and county searched for surviving family
members and determined both may have military backgrounds. No immediate
family members came forward to claim them.
Suzanne McCune, administrator for the St. Louis County Medical Examiner's
Office, handled Milne's case and attended Thursday's service. She was
impressed by the Korean War veterans who act as pallbearers — an obvious
parallel between the veterans of the Forgotten War and the veterans whose
service might otherwise have been forgotten.
"All they know is, they were a veteran and they don't have anybody else,"
McCune said. "And they will stand out here in the heat or the cold,
whatever it takes. That's how important this is."
John Eckhoff, veterans services manager for the St. Louis County Department
of Human Services, verifies a veteran's military records. Sometimes, that
means sending fingerprints to the FBI. He too, attended Thursday's
"The people who show up are there for one reason: To honor the veterans,"
he said. "It doesn't matter if they were nice guys or not, or how they
treated people. They earned this benefit when they served their country,
and the last thing we can do is to honor that benefit."
Ballard knew that if his homeless lifestyle someday led to his death, that
he would be buried with military honors — that's because he went with
friends to salute the caskets of other unclaimed veterans, said his
brother, Jerry Ballard.
"He was paying homage, knowing it would be him one day," said Jerry
It's unusual for family to show up at these funerals, but on Thursday both
vets had relatives there. Ballard learned of his brother's funeral by
reading the obituaries, he said.
Milne's ex-wife, Amy Milne, attended with their 8-year-old daughter,
Taylor. The girl placed a bouquet of carnations on her father's casket and
accepted his flag.
Through tears, Amy Milne said she is grateful that her daughter will have a
place of honor to visit her father's remains, along with the images of
veterans saluting his casket as a final memory.
"This was the closure we needed," she said.
Ballard, too, had a daughter. His brothers are unsure where she is.
But they are comforted to know that should she ever look for his remains,
she will find them in a marked grave.