SALISBURY — Almost a month ago, Joseph Sacco died in the hospice facility at the Hefner VA Medical Center.
The 77-year-old Marine, who served during the Korean War, had no family, or at least no one who stepped forward as such. He was homeless in the end.
Sandy Ambrose Haynes, 57, was living on the streets of Charlotte when he died Sept. 3. He stepped into the path of a Ford Explorer on West Trade Street, and the vehicle struck and killed him.
Haynes served briefly in the Army in 1974 before an illness led to his honorable discharge.
Even though both of these veterans were homeless and indigent, they deserved — as does every veteran — a dignified burial.
They received just that Thursday morning in services held at the Salisbury National Cemetery.
You might not expect a big crowd at the burial for two homeless veterans, but the Patriot Guard Riders and members of two honor guards made sure that didn’t happen this time.
Almost 50 Patriot Guard Riders on motorcycles escorted the two hearses bearing the coffins into the National Cemetery.
Six members of the N.C. National Guard’s Military Funerals Honor Program served as pallbearers for Sacco, whose casket was carried into the pavilion first.
Patriot Guard Riders manned the casket bearing Haynes’ body.
Holding U.S. flags, all of the riders formed a semi-circle around the building during the service, officiated by Bill Griffin, chaplain for the Indian Trail VFW.
Bill Raum, also a member of the Indian Trail VFW, played his guitar and sang the traditional hymn “Beulah Land.”
The Indian Trail Veterans Honor Guard gave a gun salute, shooting three times into the air. The first round signified duty; the second, honor; the third, country.
As always during full military honors, an Honor Guard trumpet played “Taps,” and the flags draping the casket were folded in the triangular, military way.
“We appreciate these men and what they did for this country,” Griffin said. “It’s an honor to be here today.”
Sacco and Haynes were interred side-by-side, down the hill from the pavilion.
Thursday’s services were made possible through the Dignity Memorial Homeless Veterans Burial Program. Dignity Memorial funeral homes make up the country’s largest network of funeral, cremation and cemetery service providers, and McEwen Funeral Home in Mint Hill is part of that group.
Erin Amelung, a funeral director for McEwen, said about 25 homeless veterans have now been given the honorable burials they deserve in the three years the program has been established here.
She serves as chairwoman of the N.C. chapter, and all the burials occur at the Salisbury National Cemetery.
Nationwide, the program is available in 35 cities, and it has provided burial services for more than 1,000 homeless veterans since starting in 2000.
The Dignity Memorial funeral homes embalm the bodies and provide clothing, caskets, transportation and coordination of services.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs supplies the eligible veterans with burials in a national cemetery, including the opening and closing of the grave sites, a grave liner and white markers.
Groups such as the local and state honor guards, veterans organizations and Patriot Guard Riders serve as a glue for it all.
Amelung said this was the first time in three years that Dignity Memorial held a double service for homeless vets at the Salisbury National Cemetery.
But it’s not uncommon for services to be held for as many as 10 homeless veterans at one time in larger metropolitan areas, she noted.
An unusual aspect of Thursday’s ceremony was that several family members related to Haynes were in attendance. Amelung said Haynes qualified for the program because he was homeless and his family didn’t have the resources for a funeral and burial.
Haynes was the youngest boy in a family of seven children. When he was employed, he worked for Simmons Soul Food Restaurant and Simpson’s Lighting in Charlotte, family members said.
A surviving brother, John Haynes, and sister, Margaret Williams, attended Thursday’s service. An Honor Guard member presented Williams with the folded American flag from Haynes’ casket.
The motorcycle escort, the honor guards and all the flags made for an impressive sight.
“I’ve got to say, I’m pleased to see this,” said Haynes’ niece, Priscilla Worth.
Williams said her brother was only in the Army for a month and 14 days in 1974. She said she didn’t know what health issue led to his having to be discharged so quickly.
Family members said Haynes didn’t bother anybody and sort of took pride in that fact. “That was his favorite phrase: ‘I got me,’ ” Worth said.
Haynes had a son and daughter, Griffin said.
A native of Philadelphia, Sacco died Aug. 14 from lung and prostate cancer. He identified himself as a musician and was living in Charlotte before taking ill.
He never married. Sacco served in the Marines from 1953-56.
Amelung said she often is asked whether contributions can be made toward the Dignity Memorial Homeless Veterans Burial Program. She directs givers instead to “find a charity that helps us and donate to them.”
The Rowan County Veterans Honor Guard would be an example, as well at the Patriot Riders.
Whether the veteran is a four-star general or homeless, it doesn’t matter. He or she should have a burial worthy of their service to the country.
“We always feel it’s an honor to do it,” one of the Riders said.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or email@example.com.