MISSION – Hundreds of people from the Rio Grande Valley paid their final respects for AN Ralph Ardith Fowler, a United States Navy veteran with no next-of-kin, as part of an Unaccompanied Veteran burial.

Fowler was the 102nd Unaccompanied Veteran burial to take place since 2015, when Texas Land General Land Office Commissioner George P. Bush began the program. In total, 11 Unaccompanied Veteran burials have taken place in the Rio Grande Valley.

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, Fowler served in the US Navy from 1956 to 1960 and was assigned to patrol squadron 10 NAS Brunswick, Maine.

George Rice, Representative for the Rio Grande Valley State Veterans Cemetery said there was tons of community support for the program which brings more and more people during the events.

“The outpour of community support we're having here locally, every time we lay to rest an unaccompanied veteran, the community pours out in higher numbers every single time,” Rice said. 

The Unaccompanied Veteran

Prior to the 2015 implementation veterans were brought into the cemetery and “direct no witness” burials took place, which also meant being interred with no honors or recognition of their military service. Also happening before 2015 many local communities were not aware Veterans were interred alone. Funeral homes were burdened with Veterans' remains and how to properly seek honorable disposition.

The Veterans Affairs department would not fund a casket for homeless or indigent Veterans unless they were interred at a national cemetery. Veterans are afforded free headstones but often buried without one, several headstones would end up stacked at cemetery facilities due to installation costs.

Once the program was implemented several changes took place including dropping the term “homeless veteran” in lieu of “Unaccompanied Veteran.” The program felt the absence of next-of-kin should not factor into defining the Veteran as homeless.

The services the program offers stand as testaments to the respect and understanding the communities have of the value of military family. All eligible Veterans are now interred with honor and dignity.

The Veterans Land Board Representatives accept the flag used during the services on behalf of the family and/or next-of-kin but hold the flag for 90 days. Should no next-of-kin come forward, the flag is flown on the cemetery main flag pole to honor the Veteran's service and serve as reminder that Veterans are not left behind.

Grassroots Campaign

There was not much information on Fowler, just that he was in hospice and he had two other brothers that served in World War II who had passed recently.

The process to make sure all the information is correct when it pertains to an unaccompanied veteran is a long one, but Rice said they cleared the information and set the ceremony.

The grassroots campaign to make sure the public knows about the services offered by the Veterans Land Board has been a long process. Rice said through a couple of social media posts, including one from United States Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) helped gain national attention.

So much so, other states have now began to take note and implement their own Unaccompanied Veteran program.

To make sure all qualified Veterans are given their proper burial, Rice and several other groups of Veterans have began networking hoping find a solution.

“It is strictly grassroots, it is all organic,” he said. “There are people showing up just wanting to do the right thing.”