Update, January 29: On Tuesday morning, Joseph Walker’s family told KVUE that they had held their own service for him, and that they were not made aware of the military funeral. “He’s not alone,” his great-niece Dana Williams told the network. The funeral director told KVUE that “they tried several times to contact Walker’s brother,” but couldn’t reach him. Williams said that her uncle was handling burial payments, and if there was a problem she was unaware of it.
The family seemed to appreciate the support of the thousands who came out for Walker, but Williams expressed her disappointment that they weren’t told about the event so that they could attend a funeral with military honors for their loved one. “I love my uncle and I miss him dearly,” Williams said. “I feel like we let him down today because we were not there.”
WHAT: The burial of an unaccompanied veteran in Killeen, whose next of kin could not be located.
WHO: U.S. Air Force veteran Joseph Walker and 2,000 mourners.
WHY IT’S SO GREAT: We don’t know much about Joseph Walker, other than that he served in the Air Force from 1964 to 1968—a period that includes the Vietnam War—and that he was eligible for a proper military burial. We don’t know who his family was, or much about his life after he returned home. We do know that he died recently, and that when the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery attempted to locate his family, they weren’t able to find his next of kin. So they did the next best thing: They told everyone they could about Walker’s burial. Posting on Facebook, the cemetery shared the following request:
The request quickly went viral. The Wind Therapy Freedom Riders motorcycle group—hundreds of whom gathered in Austin weeks earlier to pay their respects at the funeral of Richard Overton—pledged to attend, and encouraged others to do the same.
On Monday morning, those calls was answered. According to reports, more than 2,000 people turned up for Walker’s burial in Killeen. Their presence wouldn’t have been likely just a few years ago, before Texas launched its “unaccompanied veterans” program. The Texas Veterans Land Board announced the program in 2013, which changed the way that veterans whose families could not be located would be memorialized. Prior to the program, they would often be cremated, and the remains would be stored on shelves. In a post on Medium, a spokesperson for the organization wrote about discovering the Missing in America Project, which identifies the unclaimed remains of veterans for a proper burial. Moved by the project, the organization explained that “The service they receive should be no less than those afforded other Veterans simply because they came to us with no next-of-kin. As a military family, we are the next of kin.”
On Monday morning in Killeen, 2,000 people proved that sentiment. We may not know much about the life Joseph Walker lived, but his service deserves to be honored, and his death deserves to be observed with dignity. The thousands who came out for the burial ensured that it was.