Across the country, hundreds of unaccompanied veterans are buried each year.
Here in Texas, the Veterans Land Board works year-round to ensure those unaccompanied veterans have a dignified burial. Throughout the state's four veterans cemeteries, Killeen has the highest number of unaccompanied burials.
At the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery, thousands of our nations hero's lie in their final formation. Among them are unaccompanied veterans, but what exactly is an unaccompanied veteran?
"Our determination is made by the actual definition of unaccompanied itself, it just simply means that a veteran has no one there to accompany them during this rite of passage," said Eric Brown, deputy director of Texas State Veteran Cemeteries. "A lot of folks in the community think that unaccompanied means homeless, they think it means indigent and a lot of other definitions, but unaccompanied simply means that there's no one there to accompany this veteran rites of passage."
The most recent unaccompanied veteran to be buried in Killeen is Air Force Veteran Randy Sirois.
Sirois, a national defense service medal recipient, is now the 96th unaccompanied veteran to be buried at the Central Texas Cemetery and he won't be the last.
Marc George, president of Christian Motorcyclist Association, makes it a priority to attend every unaccompanied service in Killeen, "You know we don't just wear the red shirts on Friday's we support these soldiers in life and in death."
A crowd of community members all gathered to pay their respects. Many, like George, are regulars at services like this.
"It's an honor we get to serve as their family because when we come out here, for the unaccompanied, usually there is more people than if they had a family," said George.
It's George's second time visiting the cemetery in a week. Just last week Specialist Billy Mark Guinn was laid to rest. The Veteran Land Board officials said more are to follow.
Brown said, "We are seeing an increase in the unaccompanied veterans services kicking back up again. Obviously, with COVID we had to kind of push pause on things and prioritize and make sure everyone is safe. But the public will likely see an uptick in unaccompanied that serves to, you know, pretty much opened up again."
The Killeen cemetery accounts for just over half of the veterans buried across the state since 2015, but why?
Retired Col. Jeffrey Yarvis, associate professor of social work at Texas A&M Central Texas said, "I think one, Central Texas has one of the highest concentrations of veterans in the country."
After serving at Fort Hood many veterans stay in the area, some are disconnected from family and others end up experiencing homelessness. Yarvis said all of these factors can play a role in our area seeing more unaccompanied burials, not to mention our aging vets.
"I know, we're losing significant numbers of World War 2 and Korean veterans, or Korean War veterans, every day now and probably even a decent number of Vietnam era veterans," said Yarvis.
Eric Brown, Deputy Director for Texas State Veteran Cemeteries, said with more unaccompanied services to come some unaccompanied veterans are still slipping through the cracks.
"It's it may seem like a high number, but I will tell you, unfortunately, we're not catching every veteran that is unaccompanied out there, but we're doing everything to put our best foot forward," said Brown. "With marketing and awareness outreach campaigns, is some times a moving target, as can be imagined, you know, veterans do move around a lot, Texas right now, number two in the nation in terms of veterans."
No matter how a veteran arrives at the state cemetery, "At the end of the day they still serviced our country, regardless of circumstances, we come here and pay our respects," said George.
Brown agreed and said, "It doesn't matter where the veteran found themselves in life, once they come through our gates, they're being reintroduced back into the military family."
With more unaccompanied burials to come, the VLB is asking the community for their continued support.