No grieving relatives gathered at the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Cemetery in Slidell on Thursday to share reminiscences or eulogize the two men who were laid to rest under vivid blue skies as American flags fluttered in the morning breeze.
John Henry Huber III, of Metairie, and Claudie Ray Shiflett, of Slidell, had no next of kin to mourn them. But the two Vietnam veterans, both of whom died late last year, were honored by a different kind of family as their ashes were interred: fellow veterans who turned out in large numbers to bear witness to their service to the nation.
Cemetery staff had reached out to Ken Kimberly, chairman of the St. Tammany Parish President’s Veterans & Military Affairs Advisory Council, asking him to spread the word about the ceremony to military and veterans groups.
More than 100 people answered the call, including members of the American Legion, the Buffalo Soldiers, Louisiana Women Veterans and residents who had learned about the interment on social media.
Kay Schewe, of Slidell, was among the latter.
“I saw it on Facebook,” said Schewe, whose husband is a Vietnam veteran. She said she was surprised at the turnout. “I shouldn’t have been. There are so many good people,” she said.
Robert Fertitta, who conducted the ceremony as chaplain of the North Shore Honor Guard, was also gratified by the response. He knew that the Patriot Guard Riders were going to be there. The group of motorcyclists escorted the remains into the ceremony. But other riding groups showed up as well. “I was surprised to see four different patches,” he said.
Albert Davis, of the Lacombe group Ride of the Brotherhood, said his group’s presence was meant to ensure that the two men had the burial they deserved.
Two members of the Army National Guard crisply unfolded and refolded the American flags that rested in front of the ashes.
St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister accepted a flag on behalf of the 74-year-old Shiflett. He had joined the Army as a 19-year-old in 1959, according to Daniele Palen, administrative coordinator of the cemetery. He then re-enlisted, serving from 1961 to 1965, and was stationed in Europe as an electrician. Because of his time of service, she said, he is considered a Vietnam veteran.
The nonprofit group Vet-Attend had contacted the cemetery to see who could help with Shiflett’s cremation, and staff members pointed the group to Bagnell and Sons Funeral Home in Covington. William Bagnell paid for the cremation “out of his own pocket,” Palen said.
Steve Austin, a lawyer and friend of Huber, accepted the flag on his behalf. Huber, who was 69 when he died, joined as a 17-year-old in 1964. He served in Vietnam as a vehicle and camera repairman.
Austin contacted the cemetery and paid for his friend’s cremation.
As service members and veterans stood at attention, a veterans group performed a three-gun salute, and Anna Sanders, of Women Veterans of Louisiana, read a poem saluting unsung heroes.
About 600 burials have been conducted at the cemetery since it opened in June 2014, Palen said. Thursday’s ceremony marked the second time that someone without family was laid to rest there.
Kimberly said sometimes burials are attended by only three or four people. He estimated Thursday’s crowd at 100 to 125. “They did have family, in fact,” he said of the two men being honored.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.