COLUMBIA, SC — Terry Wilkins had a proper funeral Thursday, nearly three years after he died.
Wilkins joined the Navy when he was about 17 and served for four years. When he was in his late 60s, he had a heart attack and died. No one claimed his body.
Wilkins’ remains were cremated and stored at the Richland County Coroner’s Office until recently, when the office worked with the American Legion and Missing in America Project to arrange a burial.
“Nobody should be buried alone, period,” said retired Army Col. Warren Benson, president of the Columbia chapter of the Military Officers Association of America.
Wilkins was one of six unclaimed South Carolina veterans whose cremated remains were honored at Fort Jackson National Cemetery on Thursday afternoon – a poignant day marking the anniversary of D-Day, the American invasion of Normandy, France, during World War II.
A crowd of about 200 veterans and well-wishers made sure the deceased soldiers were honored.
Even though actual family members were not present, the military family showed their respects.
“There’s a camaraderie that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the community except among veterans,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Wayne Smith.
In addition to the veterans, S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice youth who are in Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps also attended the ceremony.
The wooden urns that held the veterans’ cremated remains were built by youth being held at DJJ.
“Our kids are actually paying it forward,” said DJJ director Margaret Barber.
Barber formally received an American flag during the ceremony in honor of the veterans. She plans to display it at the facility to remember the contributions of DJJ. She also plans to continue the program of building urns.
The program not only teaches the students to give back, it teaches hard work.
“It’s not bad to sweat. It’s not bad to be tired, as long as they’re all done honestly,” said Sam Bower, who teaches the carpentry program at DJJ.
Bower, who has been a carpenter for almost 40 years, said the results of woodworking can teach valuable lessons.
“I’m trying to show them they get attention from positive actions more than from negative ones,” Bower said.
Three of the veterans honored Thursday were from Richland County, Coroner Gary Watts said. The other three were from the Greenville County Coroner’s Office and had been there for as long as 12 years, said Jeff Fowler, a Greenville County deputy coroner.
Fowler received a flag in honor of an unclaimed veteran and plans to display it in the office.
The county gets reimbursed for the costs associated with the cremation, Watts said, because of the benefits the vets earned during their service.
They also earned the respect of their fellow servicemen.
“The sacred oath these men took is what binds us together as brothers in arms,” said Tom Fincher, chaplain emeritus of the Chapin American Legion Post 193, who led the ceremony.
Reach Cope at (803) 771-8657.