Even though she never knew Brian Mahoney, it was not easy for Tiffany Metcalf to accept a folded flag at his funeral Wednesday.
A brief ceremony with full military honors was held for Mahoney, a homeless U.S. Navy veteran, at Resthaven Cemetery in west Wichita through the Dignity Memorial Homeless Veterans Burial Program. About 20 motorcycle riders with the American Legion attended the service on a warm spring morning.
“I feel connected to him because of everything we’ve been through,” Metcalf said. “I think I want to keep (the flag). I feel attached to it.”
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Metcalf, 19, said she lost her brother, James Roland Burnett Jr., during his service in Afghanistan. He died in 2011 when she was a sophomore in high school. Wednesday was the first time she had ever accepted a folded flag.
At homeless veterans’ funerals, Gold Star Mothers typically accept the flags – which normally are given to next-of-kin – to show support. The organization is for women whose children have died in military service.
“We should be taking better care of our veterans, and it doesn’t seem like we’re doing that,” Metcalf said. “This is a way for us to do something for them.”
Mahoney served in the U.S. Navy from Jan. 31, 1972, to Jan. 12, 1976, when he was honorably discharged. He died on March 18. He was buried at the Kansas Veterans’ Cemetery in Winfield on Wednesday afternoon.
Officials at the ceremony did not know the cause of his death, but said he had received services at the Dole VA Medical Center in Wichita. A spokesperson at the hospital said she could not disclose any information about Mahoney because of patient privacy laws.
Mark Hansen, general manager at Resthaven Cemetery, said Dignity Memorial’s Homeless Veterans Burial Program has served about 26 homeless veterans since its inception in Wichita in 2000. Resthaven, which has hosted every ceremony, is a Dignity Memorial provider.
“I think the purpose behind it is just the belief that if they’re a veteran and fought for our freedom … they deserve a dignified burial,” Hansen said. “Even if there are no friends around, that’s something they deserve for fighting for our country and being in the military.”
He said he has seen an uptick of interest in the program in recent years – eight veterans have been served through the program since January 2014.
“I think there’s more death in that group happening right now,” Hansen said. “Our numbers say that at any one time, there are around 250,000 homeless veterans living on the street.”
The services are always free, Hansen said. He said Dignity Memorial doesn’t take donations to help pay for services, but he encouraged people wanting to help to contact the VA for ways to assist veterans before death occurs.
“That’s kind of the unique thing about the program – we don’t accept any money, even if the veteran was eligible for VA benefits,” Hansen said. “If they qualify, we handle it and don’t take any funds from anywhere else.”