Vietnam Veterans of America
Corpus Christi, Texas, Chapter 910
The Uniforms for Final Salute Program
How many times does a customer complaint lead to an opportunity for people and organizations, including VVA, to come together and give homeless veterans some dignity when they die?
While it’s doubtful any statistics on such a thing exist, there’s been at least one occurrence. It took place not long ago in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Uniforms for Final Salute, a partnership that involves Corpus Christi Chapter 910, is dedicated to ending a sad phenomenon few people had noticed—homeless and indigent veterans being laid to rest dressed in little more than a loin cloth, and sometimes nothing at all. Thanks to UFFS, all such veterans in the Corpus Christi area receive a uniform to be buried in.
Going strong as it marks its one-year anniversary, the program has proved to be so much more, and the community has enthusiastically embraced it. “The whole thing walks now on its own,” said Ram Chavez, president of Chapter 910. “It has its own soul.”
It all started in late October 2015 when a woman browsing through a Goodwill store in the Corpus Christi area spotted a dress military uniform on the clothing racks. “She felt it was inappropriate and disrespectful to have it in the store for sale,” said Marjorie Boudreaux, vice president of marketing and fund development for Goodwill Industries of South Texas. “We weren’t doing anything illegal, but since she was so passionate about it we took it off the floor.”
John Owen, president of Goodwill in South Texas, called Nueces County sheriff Jim Kaelin, a Vietnam veteran, to make sure selling uniforms violated no laws. Kaelin said it was legitimate to sell them, but Owen—remembering how upset the customer had been—decided to remove all uniforms from the racks in area Goodwill stores.
After all, Corpus Christi has a sizeable veterans community of about 30,000, or 8.8 percent of the local population, according to Veterans in Texas: A Demographic Study. That rate is “significantly higher than the state rate of 6.3 percent and the national rate of 6.7 percent,” the study noted.
Kaelin remarked that he knew of some veterans who died “unaccompanied” without family or means and had nothing to be buried in. Maybe some of those uniforms could go to those veterans. Owen liked the idea.
A group of like-minded people from the community met to brainstorm about how to turn the idea into reality. “We did a little background beforehand to see if anyone around had a program like this, and we discovered no one did,” Boudreaux said.
One group member was Chavez, who had already played a lead role in establishing the Coastal Bend State Veterans Cemetery in Corpus Christi. He also had been part of an effort to establish veterans cemeteries throughout Texas, having served as an aide to a state senator on veterans affairs.
“An idea takes a lot of people to make it happen,” Chavez said. “People have hundreds of ideas every day, but to make it happen, it has to be nurtured.”
Another member of the group was Douglas Johnson, the owner of Peerless Cleaners and an eight-year veteran of the Army Reserve. Sheriff Kaelin had long been a customer of Peerless. Johnson, whose father served in Vietnam, replied with “an automatic yes” when Kaelin asked if Peerless would be part of the venture. “I told him anything we could do, we’d do it.”
The idea started to take shape: Uniforms that Goodwill received or collected would go to Peerless, which would remove names and insignia, then clean them. From Peerless, they would go to Trevino Funeral Home, which would use them to dress deceased unaccompanied veterans in the uniform of their service. Trevino also went a step beyond by providing at no charge a standard casket instead of the usual pine box for the unaccompanied.
Chapter 910 would continue doing something it already had been doing for all veterans: providing an honor guard at funerals in Coastal Bend.
The group came up with the name Uniforms for Final Salute fairly quickly. But as with most new ventures, timing would be key to its launch.
“May was coming up, and that’s Military Appreciation Month here in Corpus Christi,” Boudreaux said. May also included Memorial Day. “So we thought if we’re going to launch this project, May would be the perfect month.”
No funeral was planned, just a launch ceremony at the Coastal Bend cemetery. “I didn’t know what kind of reception we’d get,” Boudreaux said. “But once we got to the cemetery, there was a huge amount of support. A band was there and lots of different people from the community. And for some people, it really touched them on an emotional level.”
It didn’t end there. “Once people heard about it afterward, the overall response from a PR standpoint was over the moon,” Boudreaux added. “People were liking it, sharing it, talking about it.”
Since May 2016 UFFS has provided uniforms for the funerals of a dozen unaccompanied veterans. Many had served in the Vietnam War. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, “As troops return from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the face of veteran homelessness has changed: Homeless veterans are increasingly younger, female, and heads of households. Despite this, homeless veterans are still most likely to be males between the ages of 51 and 61 (43 percent) and to have served in the Vietnam War.”
The staff at Coastal Bend makes a public announcement in advance of a UFFS-involved funeral, and 300 to 400 people turn out on average, according to Johnson. “There’s even a motorcycle group that comes,” he said. “It’s a real moving tribute.”
VVA is there with more than just an honor guard.
“Many chapter members show up,” Chavez said. “We’re in attendance, and we’re proud to be there.”
Public support for the program has gotten stronger. Boudreaux said Uniforms for Final Salute now has forty-five collection sites in twenty counties in South Texas. Through donations, the organization has accumulated an inventory of some two hundred uniforms in an array of sizes.
In the case of some unaccompanied veterans, families have been located and notified, and the initial request for a uniform came from them. “I’m one of the contacts,” Boudreaux said, “and when we get the call, they’re in distress, they just lost a family member, and they’re looking for someone to help them. And when we can help, we’ll drop it off at the funeral home in forty-eight hours. They’re always so grateful. It’s very emotional for them.”
It is for others, too.
“It’s a great feeling,” Johnson said about being involved. Beyond just providing a uniform, UFFS also has rallied a community to stand up for veterans who have died all but forgotten. “They get to go to their final resting place with people honoring them, and to me that’s the coolest part of this program,” Boudreaux said.
As Chavez put it, Uniforms for Final Salute ensures that “no veteran who goes through a funeral service goes alone.”
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