Finally coming home
By: Amber Williams
When Pvt. William Eugene Stevens died, few were there to mourn him. He was homeless, living at the Bethel Mission Church in Des Moines, and he was just another tired, hungry face in the crowd.
Several American Legion Riders were present for the burial of a fellow veteran at the Iowa Veterans’ Cemetery in Van Meter. The cremated remains of former U.S. Army Pvt. William Eugene Stevens were buried Monday, Aug. 25, at the cemetery. Stevens, who was homeless, died in November, but his remains were never claimed by family members. The Missing In America Project claimed the cremains from an Urbandale funeral home and ensured the veteran was given his final rest with full military honors.
Stevens was a soldier - a veteran - with the United States Army. He was a trained tracked vehicle mechanic and driver who earned his Driver Badge Award, first and second grade, before being honorably discharged in 1980 after three years of service. Before Monday, Aug. 25, Stevens was one of "the forgotten."
"The veterans are his family today," Iowa Veteran Cemetery director Steve Young said.
Stevens was the 87th burial at IVC since its inception in July. Before his cremated remains were escorted to the cemetery overlooking Van Meter, they were kept on a shelf at Caldwell Raddatz Funeral Home in Urbandale.
His ashes had rested in a dusty box in the funeral home since his heart failed him on Nov. 24, 2007, two weeks after his 48th birthday - waiting almost an entire year before somebody finally found him.
That is, until funeral home director James D. Raddatz received a letter from Bill Lauchlan, Iowa State coordinator for the Missing in America Project. The MIAP was organized as a non-profit corporation with the nationwide mission to locate lost veterans - such as Stevens - identify them, and give them the proper burial promised to them by the United States government. MIAP wasn't even a year old when it discovered Stevens on that quiet shelf.
"I wouldn't want to me left on a shelf and forgotten," Lauchlan said. "So, this is more than an honor for me to do this. It makes me feel good. It's fulfilling to find my fellow veteran brothers and try to ease their suffering by bringing them home."
Like others in his position throughout the country, Lauchlan has taken on the duty of finding his lost brothers as a way not only to "give back" to those who have served our country, but also as a way to quiet a few demons of his own. Suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after actively serving in Vietnam, Lauchlan admits the mission is a sort of "therapy" for himself.
Although Stevens is the first reclaimed veteran recovered in Iowa through MIAP, Lauchlan predicts more will surface from the 618 funeral homes that received a letter like the one sent to Raddatz.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg," Chuck Thompson said, an American Legion Rider from Adel who was one of several attendees at the burial. "There are a lot more homeless veterans on the streets, especially in the big cities. There are hundreds. That's why this is a good program."
Since its creation in January 2007, MIAP has recovered 6,327 unclaimed cremains throughout the country - 339 veterans have been identified, and 204 have taken their rightful place in cemeteries across the nation.
Lauhlan hopes Iowa's lost veterans will find IVC as their final resting place, but that depends on where they are in the state. Any cemetery will do, as long as they are no longer left in limbo.
For Stevens, Lauchlan chose a headstone that reads: "Gone, but not forgotten." Young said Stevens' headstone will be among several truckloads expected to be delivered to the cemetery in about 45 days.