A final resting place for homeless vets — (San Antonio Express-News)

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San Antonio Express-News

Posted: 11/12/2006 01:36 AM CST

Pallbearers carried the flag-draped casket through a gentle rain, from a hearse to Shelter No. 5.

Seven people were seated at the gravesite, none crying.

No one knew the man in the casket. Jeffrey Duane Ybañez, 43, served in the Navy from 1981 to 1988. But on the eve of Veterans Day, a time for remembering, Ybañez had died forgotten, with 15 cents in one pocket, a dime in the other and even poorer in love. Who would cry for him? If any family members or friends remained, none, in the end, was around.

So, as Ybañez was laid to rest Oct. 25 at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, everyone present was a stranger  even the woman who would receive the flag from his casket.

This was virtually all they knew about him: He was the 50th person buried under a program that was started in 2003 to provide proper funerals for homeless or destitute veterans in South Texas.

(Nicole Frugé/Express-News)

Cole High School JROTC cadets serve as pallbearers for Ybañez, who had been living in a shelter and with friends.

Veterans of major conflicts from World War II to Gulf War I have been buried under the Dignity Memorial Homeless Veterans Burial Program. The Veterans Affairs Department provides a gravesite, graveside ceremony, burial and headstone or marker. The 1,200 funeral homes in the Dignity Memorial Network provide the hearse, burial preparation, clothing and casket.

To anyone watching from a distance, the Ybañez service probably wouldn’t have seemed unusual. Two Navy reservists lifted the flag from the silver casket.

The flag was all cotton, bought from a VA contractor in another state. It had a label reading “Made in the USA” and measured 5 feet wide by 91/2 feet long. The sailors folded it into a triangle of white stars on a blue field and held it out to a woman who reached for it with dry eyes and racing heart.

A three-gunshot salute symbolizing duty, honor and country pierced the serene gray morning.

Then a bugler sounded taps.

Day is done, gone the sun; from the lake, from the hills, from the sky. All is well, safely rest. God is nigh.

Scott Guller was among those listening solemnly, the lyrics printed on a card in his hand that also bore Ybañez’s name and the dates of his birth and death.

Guller, 49, a Marine from 1975 to 1979, is a lawyer, husband, father and grandfather. He makes a point of attending these services, calling court clerks to say he has another funeral to attend.

The faint line between success and failure after military service is what keeps Guller returning.

“There’s very little that separates us from them,” he said.

Said Carlos Vargas, a Marine from 1952 to 1982: “It could be us. We went basically different paths, and we still have our families.

“We come here to see them off  give them a final blessing from brother servicemen.”

How does it happen?

Ybañez hailed from Louisiana. He was discharged from the Navy as a petty officer second class. After that, the story of his life is sketchy. But it seems clear the sailor’s greatest war was against his own demons.

Only 5-foot-61/2, he weighed 219 pounds when he died. Police and autopsy reports provide details of his final days, and none is good. He was taking four medications: two anti-depressants and two pain pills, at least three of the prescriptions from the VA. He recently had suffered a heart attack.

He was staying alternately at a downtown shelter and with friends living in the 1800 block of Steves Avenue.

It was that group of friends who found Ybañez unconscious late one Friday night, lying face-up in the living room. Unable to rouse him, they dialed 911.

Paramedics pronounced Ybañez dead at 12:20 a.m., Sept. 16. He had 25 cents and a crack pipe in his pockets, the autopsy report would show.

Though toxicology tests are pending, a combination of heart disease and Ybañez’s cocktail of medications was the suspected cause of death, according to the autopsy.

Extracting clear cause-and-effect relationships from the stew of circumstances that factor into poverty and homelessness is tricky business. Discerning how the stress of military duty and combat figures into it all is even trickier. But Ybañez’s story isn’t all that unusual.

Up to 200,000 homeless veterans are living on the streets or in shelters, and twice that number are homeless at some point each year, according to the VA.

The department estimates veterans make up nearly one-fourth of homeless Americans. Research has shown that, compared with the general population, the risk for homelessness is 1.3 times as high for male veterans and 3.6 times for female vets.

No studies to date, however, have shown a clear link between combat duty and homelessness, according to the VA. Poverty and mental illness, which afflicts about 45 percent of homeless veterans, are thought to be factors. So are heavy use of alcohol and drugs.

Many veterans now struggling financially may have served bravely in uniform only to find that re-adjusting to civilian life was a greater challenge. Maybe they have lasting physical or emotional scars. Or maybe overseas deployments and the rigors of service cost them their families and their futures.

Bexar County used to bury down-and-out veterans as paupers. Some were interred at Fort Sam, a resting place for more than 114,000 veterans and dependents, but with no memorial service, no honors, no flags, no prayers and nobody in attendance.

In 2002, before the veterans burial program, 25 local veterans were among 284 people buried as paupers.

The program buried six veterans at Fort Sam in 2003, four in 2004, 15 last year and 25 so far this year. Some had served for 30 years or more and were militarily retired. Others had less than a year of service.

At first, no mourners attended the burials, held on Wednesday mornings. Now up to a dozen or more individuals and members of veterans or support groups pay their respects.

About a year ago, John Russell, assistant manager with Roy Akers-Zizik Kearns Funeral Chapels, which provide the burials locally, began placing classified obituaries in the San Antonio Express-News.

“Once we started doing that, we had a few families contact us,” he said, including a veteran’s daughter who’d lost touch.

“Although she hadn’t spoken to him for 10 years, she was glad to know where he was.”

Burying a veteran properly costs quite a bit more than burying him as a pauper. The county’s pauper burial costs typically run less than $1,000, but Russell said his services under the veterans program usually would generate fees running around $6,000.

Needy and unwanted

Nationally, 445 veterans have been laid to rest since the program began in Missouri in 2000. It’s now in 20 communities with national cemeteries.

Not all veterans buried under the program are homeless. Some died in hospices or nursing homes.

All had little or nothing. Sometimes, no relatives could be found. Other times, none seemed to care.

Carthel Lewis, 50, had been a Marine in Vietnam and was the first man buried locally. He was found stabbed to death near a downtown church in 2003.

John C. Sullivan served in the Army from 1950 to 1953, but was convicted of murder in 1988. When he died in 2003, his brother wanted no part. Sullivan was buried under the program.

William A. Holly, a carnival worker from Biloxi, Miss., was hit by a car last year while trying to retrieve two stuffed animals, game prizes that had fallen from a truck. Holly, 41, was buried under the program, having served in the Army from 1984 to 1989. The flag from his burial was sent to relatives in Ohio.

Craig Erickson, the county’s veterans service officer, said the program saves taxpayers money, avoiding the cost of pauper burials paid by the county, while giving veterans a dignified send-off.

It’s up to Erickson and his small staff to determine eligibility for the program, based on VA standards and ability to pay.

Most veterans who had at least one non-training day of active duty are eligible, if they weren’t dishonorably discharged. Veterans who entered active duty as enlisted personnel after Sept. 7, 1980, or as officers after Oct. 17, 1981, must have had two years of active duty. Reservists and National Guard members who were eligible for retirement pay can be buried under the program.

But Erickson’s staff typically doesn’t know which veterans might have been war heroes.

“I don’t think we’ve had more than three or four where we’ve had detailed documentation of their service,” he said. “We’ve contacted next-of-kin who’ve just flat said, ‘We don’t want anything to do with it.'”

Alice Ann Krueger, the last living survivor among eight kids reared on a Wisconsin dairy farm, would have attended the funeral of her brother, George L. Waters, had she known about it.

Waters, who served in Europe in World War II, married but never had children. His wife later died. He moved to San Antonio more than a decade ago. He had an apartment, car and bank account, but no next-of-kin listed with his landlord.

When Krueger sent Waters a Christmas card last year, he didn’t respond.