LAWRENCE — They sat in the back of the church. A solider. An airman. A Marine. Eyes facing forward to the casket of a man they never knew.
It happens to them often, these members of the Greenfield Veterans Honor Guard. They are Hancock County veterans who make it their duty to see that every one of their comrades has the military send-off they deserve. They attend the funerals of fallen former servicemen at least 50 times a year, they said; and it’s impossible to know every one of the dead.
Tuesday was no different. But at the same time, the service for former Marine Cpl. Billy Aldridge was unlike any funeral these vets had never attended, they said. All but a few of the 1,000 supporters who gathered to pay their respects had ever met the man.
Organizers of the service called Aldridge “the unclaimed veteran” in an open invitation to Hoosiers across Central Indiana to attend his funeral. The 80-year-old man died in October at an Indianapolis nursing home, and the facility had no records of or means to contact the man’s family. When the facility turned over the man’s body to Legacy Cremation and Funeral Service in Lawrence, the funeral home’s staff decided to plan Aldridge’s service and invite the public to attend.
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The memorial took place Tuesday morning, and more than 1,000 people showed up to pay their respects, many wearing military uniforms or signs and insignias of their service.
They packed the Lawrence United Methodist Church on the east side of Indianapolis, taking up all the seats and leaving hundreds to stand along the walls of the worship center and vestibule.
Among them, members of the local honor guard — Don Pasco, the soldier; Paul Adams, the airman; and Mitch Pendlum, the Marine — sat somewhat in awe.
Aldridge could have been any of the men they served beside years ago; Adams said that notion crosses his mind with every funeral they attend. Each time is emotional, he said, with pangs of sadness and wonder as he thinks about what might have become of some of his old friends.
But to see so many gather in Aldridge’s honor, despite what little the world knew about him, served as proof of the promise each serviceman made when they joined up, Pasco said: no one will be left behind.
“We all have that bond, that brotherhood,” Pasco said.
In preparing to offer the eulogy Tuesday, Brig. Gen. Stewart Goodwin gathered Aldridge’s enlistment paperwork, hoping to learn more about the life of a veteran whose life was somewhat of a mystery.
Goodwin learned Aldridge was born on Oct. 1, 1935. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in the summer of 1956 after earning his high school diploma. For nearly four years, he worked as a supply man, and he was deployed for at least two of those years in Okinawa, Japan.
Aldridge was honorably discharged and moved back to Jeffersonville to take care of his ailing mother. He lived alone for years after she died in 1997, and he moved into a nursing home in 2004.
Other questions about the man went unanswered. What those gathered knew for certain was that some day, years ago, Aldridge signed on a dotted line that he would be willing to sacrifice even his life to serve others, as retired Navy chaplain the Rev. Ron May told the crowd.
“In doing that, he said ‘I will not live for myself alone,’” May said. “‘I will live, I will serve, for others. I will, if necessary, put my life in harm’s way.’”
Nearly everyone in the church — the vast majority of whom were military personnel and veterans — understood that promise; no matter the age, rank or branch, they all knew the call of discipline and honor.
A family might not have planned Aldridge’s services, but one certainly emerged around him to say goodbye, they said.
That message of togetherness is one many veterans who attended the funeral say they’ll carry with them.
Terry Tabb, a member of the Fortville Veterans of Foreign Wars, served in the Army during the Vietnam War. He and other members of the post who attended Tuesday’s service wished every veteran could receive such a send-off.
He’s heard sayings like “no one gets left behind” more times than he can count, he said.
“It was proven today,” he said.