Joseph Walker died on Nov. 19, 2018, at the age of 72 of natural causes. The online death notice didn't give a lot of information and likely would have gone unnoticed. In fact, it did, as did his passing, for two months.
It read: "Joseph passed away on Monday, November 19, 2018. Joseph was a resident of Dale, Texas at the time of passing. Mr. Walker was a Veteran serving in the U.S Air Force during the Vietnam War."
That was it. His burial would have likely gone unnoticed, too, if not for a call-out from the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery in Killeen, Texas.
After Mr. Walker died, his family contacted a funeral home in Austin, Texas, to arrange for services, but funeral director Gilberto Cavazos reported that after that initial contact, the family could not be reached. He said the funeral home "made every attempt" to contact the family.
It appeared that a sad, lonesome goodbye was awaiting Mr. Walker, a fate that has befallen too many veterans, who die lonely and forgotten without knowing how much their service is appreciated.
It was finally decided, after contact with Walker's family ceased, that it was time to lay Mr. Walker to rest. That's when the cemetery put out a plea on Facebook that was picked up by multiple media sources and tweeted out by Sen. Ted Cruz, R.-Texas.
"We have the distinct honor to provide a full military burial for unaccompanied United States Air Force Veteran Joseph Walker on MONDAY, JANUARY 28, 2019 at 10:00 a.m. at Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery," the cemetery posted on Facebook. "If you have the opportunity, please come out and attend. We do NOT leave Veterans behind."
The Killeen Daily Herald newspaper reported the cemetery had arranged with the Fort Hood Casualty Office to ensure Walker would be buried with full military honors. It went on to report "if no next-of-kin presents themselves at the ceremony, the on-site representative of the Veterans Land Board will accept the United States flag on Walker’s behalf, according to the Veterans Land Board, which runs the cemetery."
Members of the community were encouraged to attend. A few responded, including the Wind Therapy Freedom Riders.
At least Walker, who served from 1964-1968, was going to receive a dignified send-off that would not go completely unnoticed.
As the date of his funeral approached, more social media users shared the information and by the day of the funeral service, it was clear something special was happening.
The line of cars to get into the cemetery on Monday was miles long. The Killeen Daily Herald reported more than 2,000 people attended the funeral. Videos posted on Twitter and on other social media show the enormity of the heartfelt response.
A long line of people, from kids to senior citizens who never heard of this man until the plea went out, respectfully approached the closed casket of Mr. Walker, some gently touched it, some made a sign of the cross and others simply nodded as if to just let him know, "we are here, Mr. Walker, you aren't forgotten."
Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody told CNN he estimated more than 5,000 people attended.
"Today, we're not strangers. Today, we are family," said Marc George of the Christian Motorcyclists Association, who officiated the service, which also was attend by an Air Force unit from Fort Hood. "This is our brother, Joseph Walker.”
The cemetery again took to Facebook following the outpouring that showed up to salute Walker as he was laid to rest.
“We are overwhelmed at all this love and support," it posted. "We do NOT leave Veterans behind."
"It's completely overwhelming," Karisa Erickson, communications director at the Texas General Land Office, told the Killeen Daily Herald. "This is something you kind of hear about on the news, and you don’t really expect to be a part of it. You don’t expect the community to turn out in such numbers for someone that they don’t know.”
At a time when we are so fractured along our political landscape, it is nice to stop, take a breath, look about us and realize that there is far more goodness in America than we often see portrayed. It is important that we can clear our heads, at least for a few, brief shining moments such as what happened on Monday in Texas.
It didn't matter that we didn't know Mr. Walker. George stated it so eloquently at the service he oversaw on Monday.
"I don't have a lot of information, but it doesn't matter, because once upon a time, like a lot of us other vets, he signed a blank check for our nation,” George said.
As the ceremony concluded, The Killeen Daily Herald reported three "small civilian aircraft performed the missing man formation in the traditional military style, one peeling off to honor Walker and as a symbol of his departure."
Departed, but not forgotten.
Ruthenberg is an editor for the Enid News & Eagle, a CNHI News Service publication.