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VFW lays unclaimed vets’ remains to rest

The VFW Honor Guard takes part in a special ceremony for unclaimed veterans who will have their remains (shown below) laid to rest in San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery in Santa Nella following a memorial ceremony Friday morning at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall. (Wendy Alexander)


The sound of seven rifles firing burst into the morning air, echoing down Granada Drive. When Madera Police arrived on the scene, they found not a shooting, but a tribute — a 21-gun salute to five Madera County veterans laid to rest.

In a memorial ceremony performed on Friday at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall in Madera, the unclaimed remains of five veterans: Juan Romo, U.S. Army; Gordon King, U.S. Army; Thomas Deckert, U.S. Air Force; Wiley Thornton, U.S. Army, US Marines, and US Air Force; and Raymond Fisher, U.S. Army, were given the honors and gratitude they were initially denied in death.

After the service was completed, their ashes were taken by a funeral procession led by riders from the Missing in America Project Escort Riders to the San Joaquin National Cemetery in Gustine, to be laid down with their fellow veterans.

“They probably had a rough life,” said Madera County Supervisor Rick Farinelli. “They have basically no family, they are Madera County residents, and they’re coming back to family, right now.”

The burial of these veterans, who collectively had served in World War II, the Korean War era, and Vietnam, was set up by Madera County Veterans Remains Officer Robert “Doc” Protzman, a former Navy Corpsman, and a member of the Missing in America Project, a group devoted to locating and identifying unclaimed veterans and giving them proper memorials.

“We have vets sitting on shelves,” Protzman said. “That nobody can answer for them.”

“Each one of our veterans here today will live,” said VFW chaplain Ed Rosen, “in the glorious home up in the sky.”

VFW Post Commander Ofelia Velasquez, the youngest, and the first female commander for the VFW in Madera, also addressed the memorial.

“The present, full of cares that face all nations, whether engaged in war, or peace, fades away as we look back on the day these comrades left their homes to defend their country,” said Velasquez. “Invited by a spirit of devotion, and inspired by an undying love of their native land, they gladly went forth and joined with comrades, both young, and old, to preserve our heritage of freedom.”

The service then ended with “Taps” played on a lone trumpet, after which the five veterans were prepared for their final resting place.

“Our ranks are growing thinner,” said Rosen. “Dust shall be returned to dust, and the spirit to God, who gave it.”

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