JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Veteran funerals happen regularly at the Mountain Home National Cemetery in Johnson City, but a memorial service held on Jan. 18 was different from the rest.
On that day, four burials happened during one memorial service for four veterans who died without friends or family to claim them or to grieve.
“They pass away alone, and it’s important for us to have their military honors and honor them just like it is for any other veteran that we have here interred at the cemetery,” said Sue Nan Jehlen, director of the Mountain Home National Cemetery.
Jehlen said she’s determined to bring attention to the reality of unclaimed veterans through quarterly memorial services at the cemetery. But she said this service was proof of another troubling truth. Some cremated veteran remains end up on storage shelves in medical examiner offices and funeral homes, and sometimes they stay there for many years.
One of the four veterans buried at the service died in 2016. Another died in 2019.
“Funerals and medical examiners are doing their diligence to try to find families, but sometimes it can take years,” Jehlen said.
The National Cemetery Administration conducts investigations to track down anyone to claim the veteran’s remains, but that search often ends with no resolution.
Jehlen says she sees it as an honor for Mountain Home National Cemetery to be able to provide a final show of gratitude.
“So we are lucky to have two of those veterans here today,” she said.
Veterans groups and veteran hospital staff also attended the service.
“The term veteran is not something that’s given to you, it’s something that you earn,” said Moe Baines, a Vietnam War veteran who attended the service. “It’s hard to believe you live your life and serve your country and then die with no friends or family.”
“We’re standing in as their family,” Jehlen said. “It’s a wonderful time to be able to come together and honor them.”