Unclaimed remains of veterans leave Walla Walla for final home at veterans' cemetery

The remains of 11 veterans, unclaimed until now, left the county Coroner's Office today for a veterans' cemetery.

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With an American flag draped over the boxes containing the cremated remains of 11 veterans, the VFW's Joe Waiblinger, right, and Ken Silver bow their heads in silence during a short ceremony Wednesday morning in the parking lot at the Walla Walla County Coroner's Office. The previously unclaimed veterans are now being transported from decades of storage to the Washington State Veterans Cemetery. April 6, 2011

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VFW member Paul Hellie carefully places one of the boxed cremated remains of a previously unclaimed veteran in the back of his vehicle while Ken Silver brings up the rear with 4 more boxed remains topped with a folded American flag. April 6, 2011

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VFW members Paul Hellie, foreground, Joe Waiblinger and Ken Silver salute the flag draped remains of 11 previously unclaimed veterans just prior to their transport to the Washington State Veteran's Cemetery Wednesday morning. April 6, 2011

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The boxed remains of 11 veterans await transport early Wednesday morning in the Walla Walla County Coroner's office. April 6, 2011

Earl Foster left Walla Walla today, for a trip that has taken 59 years to complete.

The World War I veteran died Feb. 13, 1952. Since then, his remains have been in the custody of Walla Walla County and seemingly forgotten.

That changed this morning.

Foster wasn't the only one. The cremated remains of 10 more veterans, men who served their country -- proudly, one could assume with reasonable certainty -- went with him in a ceremonial sendoff attended by a small knot of concerned people.

On the heels of a salute and a prayer, the ashes of Carl Vaughn, John Hardy, Michael Wheatley and others began the journey north to Medical Lake, Wash., blanketed by the American flag for the trip.

Since death, these dead veterans have been treated with considerably less ceremony, in a "interesting and sad" history, explained Walla Walla County Coroner Richard Greenwood.

For years the dust-covered boxes sat here and there around the county, sometimes under conditions no one wants to think about, Greenwood said. In all that time, no family or friend took possession of these soldiers.

The situation was simply unacceptable, he said. "That made me sick."

A chain of events set today in motion, he said.

A local family recently came forward and offered the county a donated burial plot, which started Greenwood and Assistant Coroner Alison Barnett on the road to dealing with the nearly 300 containers of ashes in the county's care. Today's sendoff came a little ahead of his plans but not a moment too soon, Greenwood said.

He mentioned the situation in passing to Paul Hellie, a member of Veterans of Foreign War Post 466 in College Place. "I said to him, 'Some of these guys have to be veterans.'"

That's all it took for Hellie and his comrades to step forward for duty. "Richard asked how I could help him. I suggested he call the veterans cemetery in Spokane."

The conversation with administrators at Washington State Veterans Cemetery in Medical Lake gave Greenwood what he was seeking -- a dedicated spot on Earth to inter the ashes of the veterans left behind in the basement of a county building.

From there Hellie, fellow VFW member Ken Silver and post member and chaplain Joe Waiblinger began going through the death records on hand for those in the boxes. None minded the task, Hellie said. "No veteran should go unclaimed or unrecognized."

The remains of the men are eligible to be interred with honor, he added. "We are all veterans and this is important to see this is taken care of."

On Tuesday, the trio helped the coroner's office staff repackage the remains, transferring bags of ashes into new, sturdy boxes to prepare for transportation.

The plan calls for the soldiers to be interred at 3 p.m. in a brief service of gratitude. A larger, formal service will take place Sept. 12. "For all those who didn't have an honor ceremony," said Theresa Patrick of cemetery staff.

Hellie is paying his own expenses to ferry these remains to Medical Lake, which is just fine, he said. "I'm 80 years old and I need something that will inspire me to do something."

As the trio of veterans donned white gloves for the honor of transferring the remains, there was an air of quiet expectation inside Greenwood's office. He was dealing with mixed emotions, Hellie said, "I'm angry it took so long, but I'm exuberant because we're involved in doing something like this."

Silver nodded in agreement. "I'd add that we're humbled. And proud."

When the white boxes had been placed in the vehicle, Skip Pritchard of College Place Presbyterian Church opened his Bible. Not knowing whether the soldiers had been Jewish or Christian or of another faith, he nonetheless had found a scripture he believed to be appropriate for this moment, Pritchard told the group.

"For I am convinced that neither death nor life ... neither the present nor the future, nor any powers ... nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord," the associate pastor read from the Book of Romans.

He then thanked "these good men who fought for their country," in a prayer, requesting traveling mercies and care. "God speed," Pritchard added.

With that, Waiblinger walked to his 1979 Honda Goldwing. He would escort Hellie and Silver and their precious cargo out of the city, for the last leg of the final journey.

Greenwood and Barnett are exploring options for burying the other 294 cremated remains in care of the county, a few feet from his office. Dates of death go back to the 1940s and the coroner suspects some have living relatives ... somewhere.

For more information call 524-2845.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

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