Paying tribute posthumously
Multiple local agencies are involved in an unclaimed bodies program that provides full military honors for deceased veterans.
Suzanne McGuire , left, secretary of the Marion County Veteran’s Council , symbolically accepts a memorial flag from Heidi Brown, captain of the VFW Angela Santos Post 4781 Honor Guard used in one of two military honors services held for veterans whose remains were part of the county’s unclaimed bodies program. [Andy Fillmore]
Two veterans whose bodies went unclaimed after their deaths last year received full military honors services on Friday at the Forest Lawn Funeral Home and Memory Gardens.
The service to country and fellow citizens by the veterans, whose circumstances at the time of their deaths was not immediately known, was recognized with military honors thanks to the Marion County Community Services (MCCS) Unclaimed Bodies program, the Marion County Veterans Council (MCVC), several veterans’ organizations, Forest Lawn and Roberts of Ocala Funerals and Cremations.
Michael E. Witkowski, who died June 19, 2022, and Keith Wayne Melton, who passed away on July 9, 2022, both U.S. Air Force veterans, were honored in ceremonies that included a prayer, a reading, an honor guard, a rifle salute, a bugler sounding taps, a benediction of the ashes, a respectful salute from a rifle unit and the ceremonial folding and presentation of an American flag. Military honors were provided by volunteers, including members of the MCVC, Veterans of Foreign Wars Angela Santos Post 4781 of Ocala, Jason Price with Forest Lawn and Ray Mehaffey, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran of Desert Storm and Desert Shield, also with Forest Lawn.
Chip Rich with MCCS, and the county’s Veterans Service Office led by Director Jeffrey Askew, are also part of the process to be sure veterans get a final “thank you for your service.”
The cremated remains of each veteran were transported in a hearse led by two motorcycles to the Garden of Veterans area of the cemetery.
“The march of our comrades is over,” said VFW Post 4781 Auxiliary member and chaplain Valerie Roobol.
Roobol and Heidi Brown, a Post 4781 auxiliary member and captain of the post honor guard, officiated as fellow post members Sherry Whitmer-Hall and Jean Destache stood at attention holding an American flag and U.S. Air Force emblem flag.
“We are here assembled to pay a lasting respect to our departed comrade. When the call of our country was heard, he answered and self was forgotten in the cause of the greater good,” Brown said.
Roobol and Brown have conducted at least 400 military honors services.
The seven-member rifle unit fired a three round salute and bugler Richard Saltz with American Legion Ocala Memorial Post 27 played taps. The container holding the ashes was briefly draped with the Air Force emblem flag and each member of the rifle unit placed a poppy by the container as a sign of respect.
The unclaimed bodies program was started in 2020. In cases when someone dies and no one comes forward to claim the body and handle the costs of cremation, regardless of any military service, the county makes arrangements for “final rest” for the person, according to Marionfl.org.
The county contracts with Roberts of Ocala using tax funds to handle arrangements in unclaimed cases and, in many cases, the funeral home locates the next of kin. The website indicates that in one example of 100 unclaimed bodies, they found the next of kin for 60 people.
Josh Matthews-Leverette with Roberts of Ocala said during a recent 12-month period the unclaimed bodies program involved 114 cases. Ashes are held by the funeral home for at least 120 days before appropriate disposal.
Col. Craig Ham, president of the MCVC, said the veteran memorial services are held at 10:30 a.m. on the third Friday pf each month at Forest Lawn. He said American Legion Post 354 and VFW Post 4209 are among the groups involved in providing military honors at the services.
Robert Ortiz of VFW Post 4209 McCullough-Mixson Post and On Top of the World resident Bob Levenson, dressed in his USMC uniform, attended the ceremony.
Suzanne McGuire, secretary of the MCVC and retired USAF Lt. Col. Carol Walker, president of the Kingdom of the Sun Military Officers Association of America, were on hand to pay their respects. The two have participated in the services for upwards of 15 years and have been ceremonial recipients of the American flag folded by members of the honor guard and presented in honor of each veteran. They both said the symbolic accepting of the flag for the veteran is always moving.
Penny Ryan, the wife of rifle unit member Dennis Ryan, a member of Post 4781 and U.S. Navy veteran from 1971 to 1991, who served on submarines and surface ships, watched the service. She said her husband served as a medic (corpsman) and has a heart for fellow veterans.
“He’s always there for veterans; he loves his people,” she said.
Veterans and their spouses may qualify for a no-cost burial space in the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. To learn more, go to the Department of Veterans Affairs website, cem.va.gov