Unclaimed remains of 3 Detroit homeless veterans buried

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Holly— Three unclaimed homeless Detroit veterans were finally buried during a memorial service Tuesday at Great Lakes National Cemetery.

It was a beautiful autumn day with plenty of sunshine, a gentle warm breeze and Fagan Lake as a backdrop to full military services, complete with honor guards, taps and gunshot salutes to U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Joseph Michael Fitzryk; U.S. Army Spc. Ronald Lee LaValley and U.S. Air Force Spc. Melvin R. Wilbourn.

“We do this in respect and admiration to these men,” said Nelson Thulin, a funeral director from Wisconsin who is part of the Dignity Memorial Network which has helped provide funerals for homeless veterans across North America.

Vern Pixley of Pixley Funeral Home in Rochester, whose hearse transported the caskets, gave an opening eulogy for each of the three men whom neither he — nor any of the more than 200 people present — had ever met or likely ever seen.

“It’s an honor to serve those who selflessly served their own country,” Pixley said, noting how now they can each rest in peace with their brothers and sisters from military service.

“Welcome home. ... Welcome home.”

Pixley noted how the three were part of the 75,000 homeless in Michigan and 150,000 homeless veterans nationally, including 6,000 from Michigan. After they died, their bodies were unclaimed at the Wayne County Morgue.

There are about 27,000 military veterans and their spouses interred in Great Lakes National Cemetery, which opened in 2005.

Greg Price of the Sons of the American Legion said but for the Dignity Memorial program, the three homeless veterans may have remained at the morgue for some time.

“When they recently removed 170 deceased from the Wayne County morgue for burial 13 were veterans,” Price said. “We have disposed of ashes that had sat unclaimed, on a shelf for 78 years.”

Organizers admit not much is known of the three other than their names and service records: Fitzryk served in the Marines from 1974-78; LaValley was in the Army from 1966-68; and Wilbourn spent time in the Air Force from 1955-57.

Flags draped over each of their caskets were neatly folded and solemnly presented to members of the Blue Star Mothers, women who have family in the service.

Besides red-jacketed members of the U.S. Marine Corp League of Flint and honor guards from the Marines, Army and Air Force, there were some unlikely attendees. Six University of Detroit Jesuit High School seniors — in neck ties and sport coats — served as pallbearers while 82 members of the Patriot Riders — leather and blue jean jacketed motorcyclists from Michigan chapters and cities — volunteered their time to stand at attention with U.S. flags at veteran funerals in case of potential protests.

U-D Jesuit student Leonard Froehlich summed his feelings up in a school news release:

“The men we honored today put their lives on the line for our country and now they deserve our dignity and service in return. There is no better way to pay our respects than by being pallbearers. We honor these service members by being with them in their last moments on earth, and that in itself is a privilege.”


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