Joseph Walker, a 72-year-old resident of Dale, Texas, died on November 19, 2018. He was a U.S. Air Force veteran who had served in Vietnam. His funeral had been planned for early December, but his family had been concerned at meeting the costs of the service and burial.
The director of All Faiths Funeral Service in Austin, Texas agreed to keep Walker’s body until something could be worked out. However, repeated efforts to reach out and get in touch with the family proved impossible. In early January, All Faiths made the decision to provide closure for Walker.
On January 24, the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery put out a request via their Facebook page which read, “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 am…. If you have the opportunity, please come out and attend. We do NOT leave veterans behind.”
The call went viral as the word spread across Texas. Senator Ted Cruz echoed the call to action on Twitter, as did CNN reporter Jake Tapper. The Texas-based biker group Wind Therapy Freedom Riders organized a ride in Walker’s honor, with seventeen confirmed attendees on their Harley-Davidson motorcycles making the journey.
The Air Force Times also put out a call for attendance and a number of men and women in full dress uniform provided a guard of honor at the graveside.
On the day of the funeral, photographs were posted online of the miles-long queue into the cemetery as hundreds of vehicles arrived in convoy. The local Williamson County Sheriff was forced to dispatch units to deal with the traffic as it backed up onto local highways, and staff at the cemetery delayed proceedings so that everyone who desired to attend the service could do so.
Sheriff Chody, who attended the funeral with his fellow law enforcement officers, estimated that there were over five thousand people at the ceremony. A follower on the Sheriff’s Twitter account remarked that it wasn’t a bad turnout given just three days’ notice.
Other estimates put attendance between two and three thousand, but in any case, either number is better than the zero that had been expected just a few days earlier.
The Stars and Stripes were held aloft by hundreds of attendees as the service got under way. “Taps” was played and there was a three-gun salute. Overhead—unconfirmed to have been planned, but an extraordinary coincidence if nothing else—three aircraft flew by in formation.
The Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery staff coordinated with the Fort Hood Casualty Office to ensure Joseph Walker received full military honors. The on-site representative of the Veterans Land Board, Douglas Gault, accepted the United States flag on Walker’s behalf. However, news coverage of the event alerted Walker’s daughter to it, so she arrived at the end of the ceremony to accept the flag on behalf of the family.
“We were able to reunite the family today,” Karen Erickson told local reporters from Austin, Texas.
Joseph Walker served in the U.S. Air Force from 1964 to 1968, but other than the fact that he had left the USAF with an honorable discharge, little else is known about his service. Still, even if it was unclear what rank he had been or in what capacity he had served, the answer to the online appeal demonstrated how Americans respond to a patriotic call to duty.
He was remembered by members of his church as a “giver,” someone who was always willing to help out his fellow man or woman and was always ready with a smile and a dose of good humor. Bishop Cleveland Alexander said in a tribute, “We thank the Lord for the time we shared with Brother Walker, his sincere heart, and how he enjoyed giving to others.”