SLIDELL, La. (WWL-TV) – When Army Cpl. Whitney Moses, Army SP4 Hal Hofland, Navy SN Leon Brayman, and Coast Guardsman Leonard Smith died they did not have family to mourn them. There were no living relatives to say a final goodbye; no brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces or nephews.
Their gift of time in this tenured life had outlived all loved ones.
When they were gone, they were gone. The memories of their existence would disappear with their passing in life. It was almost if they had never been born.
But on a hot, humid August day, more than 200 people gathered to honor the men they did not know.
Strangers from all walks of life became the family they did not have. Active military and those retired from military service are among those who gathered to render a final salute.
Mothers carried their small children through the penetrating summer sun that blasted down on the covered pavilion at the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Cemetery.
Others arrived in wheelchairs. In the distance an elderly man moved slowly to the seating area, relying on his cane for balance.
A wreath of flowers adorned the head a young teenager sitting next to her brother and mother. Her brightly colored wreath would be left for the deceased veterans.
Other flowers were held in the clenched palms of restless children. All these people gathered to be the family of the men without a family. They came together to remember the forgotten, to make sure to never forget the sacrifices these men without families made so that their families could be free.
Some of those attending understood what it is like to be overlooked and neglected — what it felt like to exist in an invisible life.
John Gaine served in Vietnam.
His reason for attending was more personal than spiritual. With a tear forming in the corner of his eye Gaine softly said, “ I came to support these military Vietnam Veterans. We were the only military veterans that came back to a black eye. We were not supported by American citizens. Everybody else that went to war was supported, everybody but Vietnam Veterans. So, it’s very important to support these people who don’t have family members because we are their family.”
Katie Lang brought her three small children to the ceremony. Holding two of the boys in her arms she stood at the back of the ceremony, quietly explaining to them the importance of the event. Lang’s husband is in the Coast Guard. Her brother is an Army Veteran.
“I feel it’s a great way to show respect to those who served our country. We heard there was no family that were going to be present, but look at this, just take a look at all the people who are here. It’s a tremendous showing of love and support from people who probably don’t even know who these men are. I think it’s our duty, and we’re happy to be here”.
Lanh had another reason for being there.
To her it’s more about the future of her family than the present, “To show my children that it’s small things that they can do through their lives that can make a change. Learning to respect their country and especially people like their father. I want them to look up to these kind of people.”
During the ceremony podium speakers related honorable words of duty and service . They spoke about what is it like to end life without a family to grieve, but especially when it’s a military veteran. In a quiet moment the sound of muffled taps resonated from a single bugle. The solemn tune echoed from the outside the pavilion filling the inside with tears. Four American flags represented the four veterans in memoriam.
Each flag was precisely folded 13 times in triangles by the brilliant, white-gloved hands of Army, Navy and Coast Guard members representing the military branches of the deceased service members. Only the blue “field of stars” remained in the flag’s final fold. The audience members paid strict attention to each of the four flags folded in precise military style.
This is a formality of the military funeral that almost seemed to be reverently performed to a rhythm and quiet cadence of a ballet. After the final fold, one of the two military members gently smoothed the small creases and imperfections of the American flag. Each flag was presented to four individuals who symbolically represented the families of Moses, Hofland, Brayman and Smith.