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  • Writer's pictureTom Ermolovich

Empathy For an Unknown Soldier

This is a story from an earlier version of my manuscript that was left on the "cutting floor."

Sometimes an act of kindness is a relatively quiet one, but I’ve learned many times over that the personal gratification of being kind is more than reward enough. The Missing in America Project (MIAP) is an organization whose volunteers bury unclaimed cremains of veterans. When I read about MIAP, I learned that there are unclaimed cremains in funeral homes all across America. Most of them are homeless people who have been estranged from their families. Working with funeral homes, volunteers search service records to try to find out which of the unclaimed are veterans. Because a significant percentage of the homeless are veterans, veterans represent a large percentage of the unclaimed. Despite that MIAP makes great efforts to locate the families of the deceased, many of them have died alone. One gray morning in November, I waited for a hearse to arrive at my local national cemetery. As I stood there in the cold, I thought about the veteran whose cremains I would carry in that day’s burial ceremony. I knew his name and service record but nothing more. He had no family present, and it was my responsibility to honor him, to remember him. I wondered who he was and how he’d lived his life. I wondered if he’d forged deep friendships during his military service. I wondered if he’d experienced horrors and trauma that forever changed his perspective on life. I wondered if he had any loved ones who suffered over their inability to find him. Out of our nineteen deceased veterans laid to rest that day, only one belonged to a family we could locate. When the hearse arrived, a member of the funeral home staff handed me my veteran’s cremains in a nice handmade wooden urn. In a procession that included many other recently deceased, I carried my veteran’s cremains to a table where they were placed next to the remains of his fellow soldiers. Then the chaplain led a ceremony and we all listened quietly.

After the last prayers, the remains of each veteran were placed in a small burial locker. If it’s possible to pray hard, that’s what I did as I walked with the procession toward the locker. I looked up and said to myself, “God, please accept his soul into heaven.” I then looked down at his burial urn and said, thank you for your service to our country.

As I drove home, I reflected on the day and tried to understand what I was feeling. I was overcome with emotion; I was sad, but it was a good kind of sad. For this veteran and the others who were placed to rest that day, it was a good day. My veteran and his loved ones might not have known that he’d been cared for and honored that day. But I knew.

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