ROSS TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Military and community members gathered at Fort Custer National Cemetery near Augusta Friday to honor five veterans whose remains went unclaimed in two counties over for years.
In 2017, Dave Welihan was working at the Jackson County VA when someone from the county medical examiner’s office next door asked him how many unclaimed veterans there were in the county.
“I had no idea,” he recalled. “So I started the research and found out that we actually had 16 at that time.”
After making phone calls and clarifying records, Welihan eventually helped drop that number in Jackson County to five veterans, whose remains were all stored in a Jackson area funeral home under unknown circumstances: Marine Cpl. Donald Miskell, Army Pfc. Duane Lewis, Army Pvt. Joseph Evans, Army Sp5 Richard Sebolt and Army Sp3 Norman Grace.
Three state-required family notifications went unanswered, while the other two came back marked “return to sender.”
To Welihan and those at Fort Custer National Cemetery, why the soldiers went unclaimed didn’t matter.
“At this point, it’s really not important because they deserve to be here, so we started putting the program together,” Welihan explained. “When I started talking to these folks (at the cemetery), they all agreed with it — that you’ve done your due diligence, you’ve tried everything that the law requires. Let’s get it done.”
On Friday, the five names were read aloud as their remains were interred at Fort Custer National Cemetery with full military honors. Retired Air Force Col. Frank Walker, who serves on the cemetery’s advisory board, was one of the ceremony’s speakers.
“The work that Dave and others do to bring an honor to these veterans means a whole lot,” he said.
The ceremony was originally scheduled for 2020, but Welihan said organizers wanted to wait until pandemic-related gathering restrictions were lifted to allow more attendees. While none of their families were around, military brethren and community members, including riders with the Patriot Guard and American Legion, saluted the five, showing a strong bond beyond next of kin.
“Even though they may have not been claimed by a family for whatever reason — there’s probably a myriad of reasons that doesn’t happen — they become our family,” Walker explained.
Welihan agreed, adding that the yearslong task turned into a labor of love to honor those who were almost forgotten.
“They were in the basement of a funeral home… The funeral home people had no control … whether they had families or not. Whatever the circumstance was, they are now finally at rest,” he said. “You can see how large their family actually was by the turnout we had today.”
Welihan and his wife donated the five American flags used in the ceremony back to Fort Custer National Cemetery. If anyone learns they are related to any of the five veterans, they’re encouraged to reach out to the cemetery administration.