Community rallies to give local Vietnam veterans with no living relatives a proper funeral

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LEAVENWORTH, Kan. — It’s a tragic sign of the times.

Many U.S. military veterans of the Vietnam War era are passing on, and some are passing on with no remaining relatives to bury them.

On Thursday, a community banded together to give two fallen patriots a special sendoff.

They were unknown to many, but people in Leavenworth wouldn’t let them be forsaken either. 

Leavenworth National Cemetery hosted around 100 people Thursday to say farewell to retired U.S. Army Prt. Arlen Zimmerman and Spc. Thomas Winstead, two soldiers who served in Vietnam. Both men died since November 2019, leaving no known blood relatives behind.

Cars entering the cemetery lined up, carrying people who’d rallied the effort to ensure Zimmer and Winstead wouldn’t have an empty funeral.

“I thought it was just going to be me and my wife. I really did,” Kansas City resident Mike Pence said.

Pence, also a U.S. Army veteran, is believed to be the only person in attendance who knew either man. 

“I just couldn’t have wished for something better for him. The respect and the ceremony was beautiful,” Pence said. “This overwhelmed me.”

Staff members from the Veterans Administration accepted a ceremonial American flag, delivered by a military honor guard, on behalf of Winstead’s estate. Current and former military members came to share a solemn salute.

“The type of war they faced in Vietnam left them fairly alone in their personal lives and their families, battling addiction or depression,” U.S. Navy Lt. Houston Benson said. “It’s fairly uncommon for people to be buried alone, but in this particular war, it’s more common than it should be.”

“It broke my heart because no human being should be buried with no one. I decided they took the call of duty and went, so I thought I could do the same thing,” Retired U.S. Navy officer Stephen Lopez said.

As many as 100 people showed up on a cold afternoon to say goodbye to two men they’d never met before.

Virtually every branch of the U.S. military was represented, members who agreed there’s something special about the people who came out to pay their respects to these fallen veterans.

“When you’ve been in a war, and you lose so many friends, you know all the guys — maybe not personally, but you live with them. We’re all the same,” Lopez added.

 “He was an amazing guy. He deserved something incredible like this,” Pence said.

The VA pays for the burial of fallen soldiers as part of their death benefits. However, people in attendance Thursday praised the Muehlbach Funeral Home, which helped coordinate the memorial service.

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