Never again alone: Funeral honors veterans who died unclaimed

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(MICHAEL PATRICK/NEWS SENTINEL)

(MICHAEL PATRICK/NEWS SENTINEL)
Updated: Yesterday 5:35 p.m.
photos by CAITIE MCMEKIN/NEWS SENTINEL Veterans move the casket of Frank Traxler, one of six veterans from East Tennessee being honored during a memorial service at the East Tennessee Veterans Cemetery-John Sevier on Monday, June 6, 2016.

photos by CAITIE MCMEKIN/NEWS SENTINEL Veterans move the casket of Frank Traxler, one of six veterans from East Tennessee being honored during a memorial service at the East Tennessee Veterans Cemetery-John Sevier on Monday, June 6, 2016.
Staff Sergeant Jeff Slover, of Knoxville, hands a flag to Sergeant William Broyles, of Morristown, during a memorial service for six veterans at the East Tennessee Veteran's Cemetery on Gov. John Sevier Highway Monday, June 6, 2016.

Staff Sergeant Jeff Slover, of Knoxville, hands a flag to Sergeant William Broyles, of Morristown, during a memorial service for six veterans at the East Tennessee Veteran’s Cemetery on Gov. John Sevier Highway Monday, June 6, 2016.

By Kristi L. Nelson of the Knoxville News Sentinel

The flag was at half-staff, the parking areas overflowing, many cars bearing military and veteran plates or insignia.

Around 200 people gathered Monday afternoon to ensure that six East Tennessee military veterans who died unclaimed were remembered in death.

Active-duty servicemen and servicewomen from each branch of the military escorted the remains of Sgt. Deborah Elaine Easler; Spec. 4th Class Leonard David Fairchild Jr.; Seaman Recruit Michael Lee McRill; Pvt. Calvin Coolidge Cherry Jr.; Pvt. Richard Eugene Traxler; and Fireman Robert Lowell Burk into the chapel at East Tennessee Veterans Cemetery on Gov. John Sevier Highway.

Cesar Correa, pastor of NorthStar church’s South campus, delivered a eulogy, reading names, dates and branches of service, and what few other details were known.

“As I thought about these men and this woman, I couldn’t help but wonder, what were their stories?” Correa said. “We know so precious little about these veterans, their lives, their hopes, their struggles. … How sad it is for us that we know so little of them.”

Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, whose father served in World War II, said he is “in awe” of veterans and expressed remorse that untreated post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues might have marred their years after service.

“As a nation, this is an indictment of us, that we have homeless veterans who are not getting the care they need,” Burchett said. “This should never happen in this great country of ours.”

Speakers broadcast the service to those who came to pay their respects but couldn’t squeeze inside. Flag-holding veterans circled the back and sides of the building through the ceremony, as six shots were fired, “Taps” played, and six doves released.

As the service concluded, the veterans’ flags were presented. Representatives of the local Women’s Veterans of America and Volunteers of America, respectively, accepted Easler’s and Cherry’s flags. Burk’s flag went to the staff of East Tennessee Regional Forensic Center, which works to identify unclaimed dead who might be eligible for burial with military honors. And retired U.S. Navy Cmdr. Ken Guest accepted McRill’s, which will be sent to a recently located sister in Colorado.

Libby Huffaker came to accept Fairchild’s flag. Huffaker graduated with Fairchild from Fulton High School in 1963 and plans to display his flag there.

“We have little mini-reunions about every six months, and David always came,” Huffaker said. “When I read this in the paper, I was just heartsick.”

Maryville Mayor Ed Mitchell accepted the flag for Traxler, who died May 21 at Blount Memorial Hospital.

Friend Kenneth McCollum said Traxler last resided at Liberty Assisted Living.

“I called him ‘Pop,’ and he called me ‘Son,’ ” McCullom said. “We went places and did things together. …I’ll miss that smile. He’d always light up with that smile.”

This is the sixth such ceremony Berry Funeral Home has helped coordinate in Knoxville.

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