Wendell Doughty died at a local nursing home a few days after turning 50. He had no known family members, no home of his own and few possessions.
Thus, many of the consequential details of his life died with him. It’s unclear how or when he became destitute. There was no one left to make funeral arrangements. No pictures accompanied his death notice.
Were Doughty not a military veteran, his body might have gone unclaimed or been buried in a pauper’s grave. But thanks to a program for homeless veterans, Doughty will receive a funeral with military honors Tuesday at Georgia National Cemetery in Canton.
“It’s fortunate that we know how he served, what he did and what he deserves,” said Greg Free, chairman of the Dignity Memorial Homeless Veterans Burial Program in Atlanta and a manager at H.M. Patterson and Son-Canton Hill Chapel.
Founded in St. Louis in 2000, Dignity Memorial aims to provide homeless and indigent veterans with a proper military burial and has conducted more than 1,000 funerals in 35 U.S. cities.
Though the number of known homeless veterans has dropped in recent years, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs estimates as many as 65,000 veterans live on the streets every day.
Through the Dignity program, funeral homes and cemeteries provide preparation of the body, transportation, clothing, a casket and coordination of the funeral. The Georgia National Cemetery supplies the opening and closing of the gravesite, a grave liner, a headstone or marker and the graveside ceremony.
“The program was founded upon a belief that every veteran deserves an honorable and dignified funeral,” said Jessica McDunn, a spokeswoman for Dignity Memorial. “There is a need for this. … A lot of people out there need help.”
Doughty, a native of College Park, will be the third veteran to receive a funeral through the local program.
The first veteran in the program was Sgt. Jose Conrado Martinez, who was buried in the Georgia National Cemetery in July 2010. The 72-year-old Martinez, who served as a paratrooper and medic in Vietnam, died without a home, money or legal next-of-kin to make his funeral arrangements.
That’s when H.M. Patterson and Son-Canton Hill Chapel and Dignity Memorial stepped in. Martinez ultimately received a graveside service with military honors, a rendition of taps and a three-volley salute.
Free said he expects Dignity Memorial in Atlanta to serve many more veterans as agencies and service providers become aware of the program.
“There’s a big veteran population here,” he said. “This is a city where it can work.”
Doughty, who served in the Army for three years as a medical specialist, came to the attention of the program through a veterans liaison and chaplain at Vitas Hospice in Atlanta. Larry Robert befriended Doughty in his final weeks at the hospice and learned of his desire to receive a proper military burial.
Robert said Doughty was proud of his military service and talked of it often. Doughty covered the walls of his room with certificates recognizing his military service, a U.S. flag and a picture of President Barack Obama.
“One thing he cared about was his country,” said Robert, who will officiate at Doughty’s funeral. “It was almost like he was a soldier to the end. A soldier at peace.”