At 1230 p.m. on 27 March 2011 Mr. Edward Schulken, a Navy Veteran, was laid to rest in San Diego California with full military honors. His flag draped coffin rested just in front of a pulpit where a Navy Chaplain spoke fondly about a man he never knew. In his eulogy for the stranger, the chaplain could only note that, “ours was not to judge.”
The group of men that had come to say farewell to Ed sat, heads bowed, in silent reflection. Many of them had long hair, grey beards, and bifocals. Some wore leather vests and had driven to the service on their Harleys. Like the chaplain who spoke so eloquently before them, they did not know Mr. Schulken either. Still, they listened somberly.
After the short service, two veterans stood at each end of the coffin, raised our nation’s flag from its lid, and folded it with the care and skill of craftsmen. When they were done a ship’s bell rang, Taps played, and honor guards fired rifles into the air. After a moment of silence those that that had come to pay their respects formed a line, came forward one at a time, and laid a violet on Edward’s box. As this happened, one older gentleman wearing a VFW hat sat quietly in his seat – weeping. Perhaps his tears were for Ed, and perhaps they were not. They were tears nonetheless.
After the ceremony, the men gathered outside the chapel and continued to talk about the man that they did not know. Many had tear filled eyes, and referred to Ed using terms like brother, hero, and patriot. When everyone departed, Edward Shulken took his last car ride to a local veteran’s cemetery where he was laid in the ground and covered up forever.
Edward’s family and friends had not been at the memorial service, because he had none. Truth be told, Edward had lived the last years of his life homeless, alone, and forgotten in the streets of San Diego. No one will ever know what misfortune or poor personal choices led to Ed’s demise, but among the group of men who had assembled to wish him farewell, no one really cared. All that they knew (and had to know) was that Mr. Edward Schulken had served honorably in the United States Navy and was a brother-in-arms. All that mattered to them was that when our nation called, Ed stood to be counted in a rare group of men and women who would willingly sacrifice everything for her. To those who had come to pay their respects, this stranger was family.
The men who buried Ed were Veterans from the Dignity Memorial Group. According to DMG, there are over 150,000 homeless veterans across the United States, and they are dying by the dozen every day. So these men and women do their best to do the right thing. They collect funds, reserve plots in the ground, and when these homeless Veterans are found dead in alleys, dark corners, and forgotten places, they bury them honorably.
Edward Schulken’s name will likely never be spoken again. The grass on top of his grave will be neatly mowed however, and every Veteran’s day someone will place a small American Flag by his headstone to acknowledge his Service. Though it is likely that no one will ever weep over his grave, many will come and honor what his resting place represents. They will weep over their own loved ones, and in doing so… in some small way…will remember Ed too. He will be surrounded by his brothers and sisters-in-arms for all time, and they will lay together as they once stood together. In death, Ed has finally found his home and his family.
Over the next week, as you listen to stories about nuclear meltdowns, economic collapse, war, suffering, and political turmoil, take a moment to say a short prayer of thanks for the men and women that brought Edward Schulken home. As long as there are people like this among us, we can all take comfort in knowing that all is not broken.