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Unclaimed remains laid to rest with honor

W. Kenneth Medley II • Updated Feb 25, 2019 at 11:36 PM

The unclaimed remains of Jerry L. Gray, 67, were given full military honors as he was laid to rest Monday at Mountain Home National Cemetery.

Gray was a Marine Corps veteran. He achieved the rank of lance corporal and earned the National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, a Good Conduct Medal and a Rifle Marksman Badge.

There is not much else known about Gray; his remains were unclaimed after his death Feb. 18, at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Mountain Home.

As part of a national effort by veterans organizations, funeral homes, medical examiners and state and federal veterans’ affairs departments Gray was given a dignified ceremony. Gerald Cardwell, commander American Legion Post 3 and Trinity Memorial Center, in Kingsport, made the arrangements. More than 100 people were on hand to say a final farewell to the Marine.

“Trinity notified me that they had an unclaimed veteran, Mr. Gray,” Cardwell said in an interview after the ceremony. “We do not like to do an honor service for an unclaimed veteran with no one here; no family; no friends.”

Many veterans organizations were on hand for the ceremony. There were mothers, children and everyday people, all strangers who gathered for a one cause; the belief that no veteran should be buried alone. Many tears were shed and sobs could be heard during prayers and kind words. Tears streamed down faces as notes of Taps rolled out of the mouth of the bugle.

“This gentleman apparently has no living family or anyone that they (the VA) can locate,” said John Pollack, president of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 979. “He passed away here at Mountain Home at the VA hospital. Our motto from our chapter is, ‘never again will one veteran abandon another,’ that includes a veteran who passes away. No veteran should leave this earth without being sent off by his brothers and sisters. So we gather together and do this.”

Word was spread about the funeral in the Kingsport Times-News and may have been advertised on a local radio station, according to Pollack. The show of appreciation from the community astonished American Legion organizers and the VVA chapter president.

“This is the largest crowd that I have ever seen when we have one of these,” Pollack said.

“It went viral,” Cardwell said.

Statistical data about unclaimed veterans is hard to find. There was a survey conducted by the National Funeral Directors Association in September inquiring on the frequency that remains are unclaimed, how long they are preserved before burial or cremation and other statistics. Included in the survey were questions about efforts to curb the problem as well, according their website.

That data is not yet available. The NFDA 2018 cremation and burial reports did not contain data pertaining to unclaimed veterans’ remains either. This is not an isolated incident either.

In January in Memphis, more than 700 people were on hand to lay to rest the remains of a veteran, according to news reports. Organizers of that funeral were quoted as saying there was another in Knoxville a week after. The phenomenon of unclaimed veteran remains seems to be rising.

“It happens all too often,” Pollack said. “Normally they (the remains) are held at a funeral home for a certain amount of time; exactly what the amount is I don’t know. It could be 30, 60 or 90 days, while they attempt to locate somebody”

After attempts to reach a veteran’s next of kin have failed, internment arrangements are made. A lot of the funds for the ceremonies are donated or raised through fundraisers. Trinity Memorial Center offers services free of charge in the Tri-Cities region.

Trinity’s Weston Leonard said that the firm handled 15 to 20 unclaimed remains cases last year. He could not give data about any other funeral home or mortuary service providers.

Leonard said the firm handles these arrangements to show appreciation for veterans. He said the American Legion and other organizations are volunteer services. He added that if the public wants to help, they may donate to one of the nonprofit organizations.

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