After discovering that the remains of a friend and fellow veteran were unburied nearly two months after his death, Mike Haynes enlisted the help of VFW Post 3370 and Harris-Hanlon Mortuary. More than a year after his unexpected death, Sgt. Rick Carlson was laid to rest with military honors in the Santa Fe National Cemetery.
Haynes and Ernest Attebery, a VFW Chaplain, worked with Jaime Kurz, the business manager at Harris-Hanlon, to make that happen.
“Rick unfortunately passed away unexpectedly due to an accident,” Attebery said. He was a cold war veteran and Air Force sergeant, and a member of Crossroads Church, Attebery said, and used to join the Atteberys for Bible study in their home. “I was privileged to conduct the military portion of the service at Crossroads,” he said, adding that the American Legion from Estancia served as color guard for that event.
Attebery continued, “Like everything else, we kind of forgot. We had the memorial service and presumed the family would have him interred. Several weeks later, we learned he was still here at Harris-Hanlon.
That’s when he and Haynes stepped in.
“It all boils down to we were required to provide a DD 214 [form],” Attebery said. “It’s the same for all veterans—without that form they can not legally inter you in [the Santa Fe National Cemetery] or any national cemetery.” He said the VFW had trouble getting the DD 214, and Haynes had met Kurz.
“She went out of her way, above and beyond what the job called for, and provided us with an avenue to get him interred,” Attebery said.
“The model is no soldier left behind, whether it’s combat, peacetime, or interment, getting somebody put into the ground quickly, with honors as a service member,” Haynes said. “The grace of God allowed me to come and inquire. We couldn’t get it done with the family.”
Haynes said after getting the VFW involved and with help from Kurz, “Everything worked out well and even on the day of interment, the complete family was there, everything was supported family-wise, the wife was given the colors, ammunition and stuff of this nature—so everything was successfully accomplished,” Haynes said. “We’re not taking any credit for ourselves. Every soldier who served the nation deserves to be put away with honor and dignity, and that’s why we as professional soldiers jumped on board to make sure this soldier went home in a professional manner, especially after representing his nation.”
Carlson’s body was stored at Harris-Hanlon for more than a year. Part of that was because in order for the funeral home to act as next of kin in the burial, a year had to elapse from his death.
Haynes, Attebery and Kurz started working on the burial about 45 days after his death.
Haynes said he appreciated that Kurz never put him off, and kept him abreast of what was going on as she researched the case. “You don’t find too many civilians who … look at a uniform wearer, present, past or former, to see to do anything for them, because there seems to be some kind of antagonistic thing going on between the unknown and the known,” Haynes said. “She herself realized the importance of putting that person away expeditiously, with dignity and honor.”
VFW Post Commander Mike Briody and quartermaster Jesse Lopez were on hand to present the plaque to Kurz.
Briody said it was the first time he knew of the post had been involved in a situation of this kind. VFW rules say that to be a member a veteran had to have served in a combat zone overseas; Carlson had not.
“Anybody that wants to help, we appreciate, especially for a cause like this,” Briody said.
“I’m very thankful,” Lopez said. “With the effort of Jaime, Ernie and Mike, it came through. Hopefully if I was ever in that position one day, the same thing could happen to me.”
Lopez said that veterans “falling through the cracks” is an ongoing issue.
All four men stressed the importance of the DD 214 form in end-of-life planning.
Kurz said Harris-Hanlon is a “mom and pop and a family,” and said she gives her utmost to every family that comes in. “Here at Harris-Hanlon we only have about 150 cases a year, but I know every single one of them by name,” she said, adding, “I think it’s important to do that, to just make that person feel like they’re part of the family and to help them with that grieving process.”
In Carlson’s case, her efforts included “a lot of research and a lot of phone calls,” she said. Rules for burying veterans change every year, she said.
In this case, because the family couldn’t produce the DD 214, the funeral home eventually assumed the role of next of kin.
A complicating factor was that Carlson’s minor son had already been buried in his plot using his Social Security Number.
“He and I were not only comrades in arms but also best friends and brothers in Christ,” Haynes said when asked to talk about his friend, adding that the two would “go to the neighborhood and help as many people as we could, whether it be ramps, mowing yards, taking out trash, moving anyone—that’s the kind of person he was.”
Haynes said the “personal attributes” of Carlson were “probably what got me to do what we did, for him as a service member, but also as a person.”
“He was very active in Crossroads Church, and like Mike said, he was constantly helping somebody,” Attebery said. “I got to know him through the church and then he was … part of our Bible study group.”
The group presented Kurz with a plaque as funeral director Grant Preston told them it wasn’t the first time she had gone above and beyond the call of her job.
“[Veterans] are men and women who chose to go into a situation to lay down their lives for all of us. And in today’s age, we know the political climate is pretty bad, whether you’re liberal or conservative, it doesn’t matter,” Kurz said. “Whether you believe in war or not, things exist, whether we like it or not, whether we agree with it or not. But these men and women have made a decision that they would lay down their lives for our freedom, and we owe it to them to do everything we possibly can.”