It’s a cool spring morning inside the gates of the National Cemetery at Fort Sam Houston as a crowd gathers for a familiar ritual. Students from Robert Cole High School’s Junior ROTC program are dressed in their best uniforms as they carry a coffin draped with the American flag into the open air shelter.
It looks like a funeral service for a decorated veteran who served his country with honor and dignity – and in fact it is, but this veteran was homeless when he died and officials could not locate any next of kin. Deacon Santiago Rodriguez from Mission San Jose presides over the service for Paul G. Miller – a veteran of the U-S Navy.
“Merciful God – we bid farewell to Paul Miller with the hope our faith gives us – that he has gone to a better place – save our brother from the power of death and bring him safely to your kingdom of light and peace. We ask this through Christ our Lord – amen.”
Paul Miller passed away at the age of 68 from lung cancer. He served in the navy during the 1950s as a reservist and an active duty enlisted member. After he was discharged, Miller was a truck driver who fell on hard times. He drifted from job to job, living out of his truck or in shelters. Lee Allen and his family helped Miller through his final months.
“He come down to San Antonio to find work as a truck driver and we welcomed him into our house and his health deteriorated within a month – and this is the result of it,” said Allen.
Since Miller was an honorably discharged veteran he’s entitled to a funeral with military honors. Craig Erickson is the Bexar County Veterans Service Officer. He coordinates the funeral services for homeless vets at Fort Sam Houston.
“An individual may die at a hospital – hospice or rehabilitation center. When they’re a veteran then we try to seek out information to verify that were a veteran and then we go about scheduling services as appropriate – when no next of kin can be found,” said Erickson.
The Homeless Veterans Burial Program was launched in 2003 by Dignity Memorial – a national network of funeral homes. They provide funeral staff and services while volunteers from the military community coordinate each ceremony. Erickson says his team has conducted 81 services since the program began.
“It usually doesn’t make any difference – what service the veteran served in or the length of service – and we’ll get members of our committee and what I call the friends of the homeless veterans’ burial program to participate,” said Erickson.
Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, the Veterans Administration and advocacy groups around the country have come together in an effort to reduce the number of homeless veterans on the streets. John Driscoll is with the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans –based in Washington.
“Thirty years ago – we didn’t have 700 vet centers in communities across the country to help combat veterans. We didn’t have homeless veteran coordinators at every VA medical center – there’s a 157 VA medical centers that provide homeless assistance, assessments, referrals to VA programs and community programs,” said Driscoll.
There are an estimated 11,000 homeless veterans in Texas according to the latest data released by the VA. But Driscoll hopes efforts to reach out to those vets on the street will continue to shrink numbers nationwide.
“In 2003 the number of estimated homeless veterans on the street each night was 314,000 – and in 2007 that number has been reduced to 154,000 – so that’s about a 49 percent reduction since 2003,” said Driscoll.
Back at Paul Miller’s funeral service, the honor guard presents an American flag to Lee Allen as he reflects on what he learned from the man who taught him how to be a truck driver.
“How to value every minute – especially the last couple of years after he was diagnosed with cancer – and going through chemo and everything – things can change in a heartbeat,” said Allen.
Despite the rough road Paul Miller traveled since his discharge from the U-S Navy, his fellow service members are here to ensure that his life and the sacrifices he made for his country are not forgotten.