Veterans

'A final tribute': Teens serve as pallbearers for homeless military veterans

TODAY

Editor's note: This story was first published on Oct. 26, 2015 on TODAY.com. The pallbearer ministry program continues at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School, and students have served as pallbearers for both unclaimed veterans and non-veterans this year.

A group of high school students are volunteering to serve as pallbearers for fallen military members who otherwise would have been buried alone.

“This was an opportunity to give something to somebody who finished their life on the fringe of society,” said Tom Lennon, 17, a senior at the University of Detroit Jesuit School. “These veterans were men I have never met, but they helped make the country I live in safer and stronger. No matter who they were or what they did on earth, every person deserves a proper burial.”

University of Detroit Jesuit School
University of Detroit Jesuit School students Nick Benedetto, Joshua Gonzalez, Tom Lennon, Leonard Froehlich, Noah Tylutki and Michael O'Connor serve as pallbearers in the funeral of a homeless veteran.

The funerals were the first in a new initiative of the school’s student service team, led by faculty member Todd Wilson. Wilson said more than 50 students participated in the first training, and additional students signed up for the next training.

“The students’ service is so important because they realize how they can give back to the people of our community who have given so much to us,” Wilson said. “They believe that, through being a pallbearer at the funerals of veterans, the homeless, the socially poor and others, they are ... offering a final tribute to a person’s life journey.”

University of Detroit Jesuit School
"I am so glad I was able to help out those three brave men, giving them a proper celebration of the life they led," said Michael O'Connor, one of the students. "I did not know these men, but being able to show them respect was important to me."

John Desmond, funeral director at A.J. Desmond & Sons Funeral Home in Troy, Michigan, said his funeral home has partnered with another funeral home in the area and the county medical examiner’s office to ensure that all abandoned veterans receive a proper burial at nearby Great Lakes National Cemetery.

The Dignity Memorial Network’s Homeless Veterans Program provides caskets for these veterans — but without family present at the burial, there are no pallbearers to carry them.

“The students’ service is quite simply valuable to our firm because that is what we do — we serve our community by caring for and honoring the dead, regardless of financial circumstances,” said Desmond, adding that the veterans they provide internment for are turned over to their care after the county has attempted, unsuccessfully, to locate relatives to claim the bodies for 90 days.

University of Detroit Jesuit School
"I felt it was a real privilege to be a part of this service for these men who have fought for our country. Although none of us knew them, I felt honored to be a part of the service," said Leonard Froehlich, a high school senior. "Above all, we gave these men a truly dignified funeral."

Wilson said he is proud of the students who have stepped up to pay their respects to these unidentified veterans.

“To watch them develop this program and to give so generously of their time and talent is impressive,” said Wilson. “I have seen our students reach out of themselves and truly give selflessly to others. The students have come to understand that it is not our place to judge someone and their circumstances in life, but rather to celebrate and respect the dignity of that person’s life.”

As the students prepare to serve as pallbearers at funerals in the coming weeks, Nick Benedetto, 17, a senior at the school, said he’s done a great deal of reflection on his experience as a pallbearer.

“I know that these people had loved ones and, whether or not these loved ones could be there to say goodbye, it does not change the fact that everyone deserves a proper burial,” Benedetto said. “During the funerals, while listening to the eulogies, I heard a particular statement that I feel was very important. ‘While you didn’t know him by name or sight, we are all here today to recognize his service to our country.’

“I realized that none of us present knew anything about the deceased. However, we were all there to pay them respect for serving our country. After that, I felt a sense of peace and was thankful that I was able to be a part of the services.”

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