Four homeless Knox County veterans received the recognition they earned in life Tuesday when they were buried with full military honors, courtesy of the Dignity Memorial Homeless Veterans Burial Program.
The ceremony at the East Tennessee Veterans Cemetery on East Gov. John Sevier Highway was attended by Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, members of the Marine Corps League and others. Flags were folded and doves released for the four men, who had no family available or willing to claim their bodies.
Berry Funeral Home worked with the East Tennessee Regional Forensic Center and the veterans cemetery to lay the four to rest.
“May we not bury these four fine men in vain,” said Rick Phipps, who works with the Dignity program. “May the bitter loneliness that engulfed them in their last breaths be forever etched in our memories.”
Each of the four men represented a branch of the military, and each was honored by his respective branch as servicemen carried their cremated remains.
Airman 2nd Class William Comer Fite, 82, served in the Air Force as an administrative clerk from 1954-59. He died July 1 at a Knoxville homeless shelter.
Pvt. Larry Richard Deboer, 72, served as a light weapons infantryman in Company B, 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry in Hawaii from 1963-65. He died Feb. 5 at the University of Tennessee Medical Center.
Seaman Apprentice Steven Michael Johnson, 62, served in the Navy aboard the USS Pawcatuck from 1969-1970. He died Dec. 29.
Cpl. Ronald Victor Barton, 54, served as an aircraft rescue and firefighting specialist and a field radio operator for the Marine Corps from 1979-1986. He died April 8.
Phipps estimates more than 60,000 homeless veterans live in the U.S. — often addicted to drugs or alcohol, unaware of programs that could aid them and with no tools to re-enter society. Many go unclaimed in death, leaving their bodies to be cremated and placed in storage facilities or buried in nameless paupers’ graves.
The Dignity program, a cooperative effort, attempts to give such veterans proper burials.