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Community ensures homeless vets get burials with honors

Members of the Morris Color Guard carry the casket of homeless U.S. Navy veteran Keith Bolton during an honors ceremony Friday at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery.
Members of the Morris Color Guard carry the casket of homeless U.S. Navy veteran Keith Bolton during an honors ceremony Friday at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery.

Two World War II veterans reached the ends of their lives homeless and alone. But these community members ensured they still were laid to rest with honors.

“Once you put the uniform on, we all become brothers,” American Legion Romeoville Post 52 Chaplain George Sanchez said.

Victor Jonas, who served in the U.S. Army February to July 1945 and Keith Bolton, who served in the U.S. Navy 1945 to 1948 found their final homes Friday at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood.

Both men served in the military during World War II. Jonas was discharged after he was wounded.

The Patriot Guard Riders led the way for the two hearses, which wound around the cemetery to a pavilion filled with Abraham Lincoln Memorial Squad members – a volunteer group dedicated to providing final memory and tribute for the friends and families of those who have served.

The Patriot Guard Riders exited their vehicles and lined the path from the hearse to the pavilion for the ceremony. A pin drop could be heard as the men, who were both in their 90s when they died, were taken from the hearse in their flag-draped caskets.

Someone who came for the memorial service was asked to accept the flag for each veteran. As the group filled in the seats, the guests were welcomed. The memorial squad fired rifle volley and played taps.

Army Sgt. Jacob Martin, Army Private Zyon Jones and memorial squad members Lynn Berndt and Ken Witkowski folded and presented the flag.

“We are all family here, we take care of our own, even if we don’t know them, we are all still family. It’s pretty emotional for everybody, especially when they play taps," said Virgil Oikion, State of Illinois American Legion Department chaplain. "These are fellow veterans; we don’t know them, but we truly believe in them getting these honors.”

Those in attendance included Morris Color Guard, Patriot Guard Riders, various American Legion and Veterans of Foreign War groups, the Marine Corps League, Will County Veterans Assistance Commission, Shorewood Boy Scout Troop 256 Honor Guard, Seasons Hospice and Palliative Care and fellow veterans.

“We came to pay our respects to the men who fought for our country,” Shorewood Boy Scout Troop 256 honor member Will Ogrizovich said.

Kristi McNichol, superintendent of Will County Veteran’s Assistance Commission, said, “We need to show respect. We may not have known these men in 90 years of life, but we show up here to show respect; the rest is in God’s hands.”

Jack Piccolo, chairman of the Will County Veteran’s Assistance Commission Board and former post commander for VFW Post 5788 in Lockport said he began to help coordinate the homeless burials with honors in 2011 and every veteran, except those who were dishonorably discharged, were eligible for a burial with honors in a national cemetery.

Once homeless veterans die, the deceased are checked for military service through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Once the research has been finished, Diane Nowak of Dignity Memorial is contacted. Dignity Memorial then provides clothing, a casket and funeral services.

The Blake-Lamb Funeral Home in Oak Lawn was a partner in Friday's ceremony. Nowak said each funeral costs about $5,900, and all funds are donated.

“We owe a debt of thanks to the veterans who served unselfishly and went into combat. The veteran may have fallen down on their luck, but everybody deserves a dignified burial. We want to make sure each veteran receives individual honors,” Nowak said.

Piccolo said most homeless veterans come from Cook County and, once in awhile, they will get a call for a local veteran.

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