HELENA – The cremated remains of six military veterans whose ashes had been with a Great Falls funeral home awaiting disposition were buried with military honors on Friday at the Montana State Veterans Cemetery.
The Montana Missing in Action Project, which searches funeral homes for veterans’ cremated remains for burial, organized the event. The remains had been held by Croxford Funeral Home and Crematory in Great Falls.
The Montana Missing in Action Project seeks volunteers statewide to check with funeral homes to inquire if there are any remains of veterans awaiting burial, said Marty Malone, the statewide coordinator.
“These people have served their country honorably” in times of armed combat, Malone said.
“They deserve better than sitting on a shelf in any facility. These people put their country first.”
Funeral homes in about five Montana cities have been asked if they have the cremated remains of veterans awaiting burial, Malone said, adding that the project has a long way to go.
While the remains of 12 people were found, three turned out to not be veterans and the families of three more claimed the remains for burial, he said.
Families of four of the six cremated remains participated in Friday’s ceremony, said Drew Kent, the funeral home’s general manager.
There were no family members present for Air Force Staff Sgt. Melvin H. Tedrick, who served in Korea and Vietnam, and Pfc. Thomas J. Rice, who served in the Army and saw duty in Vietnam, Kent said.
Family members participated in the ceremony on behalf of Navy Interior Communications Electrician Fireman Henry W. Curry, who served in Vietnam; Army Sgt. Andrew A. Larson, who retired after serving in World War II, Korea and Vietnam; Cpl. Mary Joan Peet (Cox), a World War II Army veteran; and Army Cpl. Richard L. Robinson, who saw duty in Korea.
Diane Bramlette, of Great Falls, was Curry’s significant other for 22 years, she said.
“Bud died the day of my mother’s funeral, and I really couldn’t decide what I wanted to do,” she said.
His remains had been at the funeral home for slightly more than two years, Bramlette added.
The event, she explained, “just the respect and the honor … it’s really, really wonderful.”
Larson was Dan Stanfield’s great uncle. Stanfield was at the ceremony with other family members.
“While this is a hard thing for the families and me, I wouldn’t have missed this for the world,” he said.
Larson died in August 1996, Stanfield said, adding that he was impressed by the line of motorcycles from Patriot Guard members that followed the families and hearse as it drove from Great Falls to Helena.
Patriot Guard’s website says it’s a volunteer organization dedicated to ensuring dignity and respect at military funerals. Many of those who came and participated in the ceremony wore patches on their clothing identifying them as military veterans.
Members of the organization would carry the cremated remains from the hearse to where the Montana National Guard honor guard, in dress blue uniforms, would place folded American flags on the urns before presenting the flags to family members.
This was the second ceremony for Sgt. Audra Tracy, a member of the honor guard, who said it was hard to talk about how she felt without tears.
“We’re bringing veterans home, which is very important,” she said.
Spc. Guy Stefani is a member of the Army National Guard, who was among the two platoons of soldiers there to honor those being interred. He also serves on an honor guard, but on this day was among soldiers from the 484 Military Police who were there to also provide traffic control.
“To me, this is more than just another fallen soldier,” Stefani said. “This is family. Absolutely. Blood.”
“We’re all one family, regardless of branch,” he added.
Dan Jackson and three other members of the Veteran Warriors Society played a role, too.
“In the past, our veterans have had a hard time being honored,” said Jackson, who is a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
George Blackard, the American Legion district 11 commander, said the patriotism seen at services such as this one are due to those who came home to no thanks.
“You see, those men and women who received no welcome home and no thank you for their service upon their return to the states, are the same men and women who said never again. Never again will we allow our service people to return home to anything but thanks and gratitude. From motorcycle escorts to flag lines and parades to handshakes and even tears, these people, our comrades, renewed in our country a feeling of patriotism and gratitude for our service people that they didn’t get to see,” he said as the crowd watched and listened.
“I am certain that none of the six would want us to make a big deal out of their service or their sacrifice. But thanks to all of you here today, we are making a big deal out of it and for good reason. To those six, I would say, ‘Allow us to honor you, brothers and sisters. You have earned it.’”
Before the ceremony started, Marc Cramer, who has lived in Helena since 1962, talked with “Doug” and Susan Getz as they sat in the shade of a pine tree.
Cramer, an Air Force veteran, said he came to the funeral to “support my brothers and sisters who paid a price, the ultimate price.”
“We came to pay our respects,” said Doug, who is a Navy veteran.
Susan agreed and added, “I’m sorry it’s been so long for them to get identified.”
The Getzes have a son in the Marines and another in the National Guard, where a grandson also serves.
“I’m proud to be an American, and I appreciate what all the military has done to preserve our freedoms,” she continued.
“I am disappointed this was not more widely publicized,” Susan said.
“I am disappointed that more people aren’t here to honor these people.”
David Blade, with the Lewis and Clark Veteran Council honor guard, said he’s played "Taps" at 560 of these ceremonies since he joined the council in 2009. He keeps track of each one in a log book as a way of honoring each man and woman.
He tries not to become emotionally involved when he plays, he said, out of respect for the families for fear of making a mistake.
“I close my eyes. Typically it’s the song that makes the family members cry,” said Blade, who is a retired Navy veteran after more than 20 years of service.
“I don’t think of anything but the 24 notes.”
While this ceremony had hundreds of people in attendance, others don’t and these are troubling for him.
“Those are the ones tough to do, when there’s nobody there for them. To see this turnout, and put them with their comrades is inspiring. It makes me want to keep coming out for those that don’t have a turnout like this,” Blade said.
“Nobody should be forgotten.”