Unclaimed Veteran Laid to Rest by Comrades-in-Arms at Santa Fe

Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where Vietnam War veteran Billy Dunn was laid to rest Oct. 26 with full military honors. (Getty Images/Dean Fikar)
Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where Vietnam War veteran Billy Dunn was laid to rest Oct. 26 with full military honors. (Getty Images/Dean Fikar)

Billy Dunn might have died alone, but he would not be buried alone.

The 65-year-old Vietnam War veteran, whose remains went unclaimed after his death in May in Bernalillo County, was honored Friday by a group of about 50 people who wanted to celebrate his life. He received a burial with full military honors at Santa Fe National Cemetery.

Although no one at the funeral and military burial knew Dunn personally, for just a couple of hours, he was family.

"It's a horrible thing to not be known. ... We claim him as our brother," said Santa Fe Fire Department Chaplain Leroy Lopez.

During the hourlong memorial at Berardinelli Family Funeral Service, Deacon Enrique Montoya addressed the gathered strangers as "Billy's family."

Ken Hendricks sang "Amazing Grace" and "Red River Valley" and played his guitar.

Santa Fe Police Chaplain Jose Villegas, who gave the eulogy, said he was up all night drafting the speech, unsure of what to say about a man he never knew.

Dunn, an Ohio native, was 18 when he enlisted in the Marines and served two years in Vietnam. He was honorably discharged in 1973.

Although much of the man's life is a mystery, some things are inevitable, Villegas said. "I'm sure he had one original mom and a dad. ... I'm sure he had a birth certificate. ... I'm sure Billy had a childhood experience."

"The only thing I really know," the chaplain said, "is we will not leave Billy alone or unclaimed."

Following the memorial, the police chaplain gave a Native blessing, and Montoya sprinkled holy water over Dunn's casket.

Angelica Gurule, a retired Marine sergeant from Albuquerque, sat in the front row at the service to receive the U.S. flag that would have been presented to Dunn's family, as well as a bag of bullets presented by the Legion Riders, a veterans' motorcycle organization that is a branch of The American Legion.

Gurule said she could relate to Dunn through his service.

"I'll do anything for a fellow Marine," she said. "Even though I don't know Private Dunn, he's my brother. No one should ever be left behind.

"He gave his all to his country," she added. "It doesn't matter if it's two days or 10 years, he should be remembered for the sacrifice he gave."

Lopez, a fellow veteran who said his father served as a combat medic in Vietnam, shared the sentiment.

Dunn's service to the country is reason enough to honor his life, Lopez said.

At the close of the burial service, Raymond Lucero, a managing partner at Berardinelli who organized the memorial, invited participants to lay hands on Dunn's casket, representing the handprints Dunn certainly left on people's lives.

"Words can't express how much this means to me and to him, hopefully," Lucero said in an interview. "Everyone deserves a burial."

Lucero has tried to find out more about Dunn's life after learning of his death a couple of weeks ago. But so far he's had no success locating family or friends.

"I'd love to know who he was and what he did," Lucero said.

A lot of funeral homes won't cover the costs of a service for an unclaimed veteran, he said. "But to me, it's the right thing to do."

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This article is written by Olivia Harlow from The Santa Fe New Mexican and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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