Updated at 4:45 p.m. ET
Scores of people turned up for Joseph Walker’s funeral Monday in Texas — not because they knew him, but because they knew the Vietnam-era veteran was at risk of being buried without anyone in attendance.
Walker served in the U.S. Air Force, and he died of natural causes in November at the age of 72. When the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery announced funeral plans for him last week, the facility said it didn’t expect anyone other than staff members to be present.
With no family or loved ones coming forward after his death, Walker was classified an “unaccompanied veteran.”
That changed on Monday.
“Today, we’re not strangers; today, we are family, ” said Marc George of the Christian Motorcyclists Association, who officiated the funeral. Standing next to Walker’s flag-draped coffin, George declared, “This is our brother, Joseph Walker.”
The diverse turnout — young and old, people dressed in suits, jeans and motorcycle jackets — reflected “an outpouring of love” from communities in Killeen, Texas, and beyond, George said, acknowledging the large crowd that turned out to pay their respects.
Officials at the cemetery say they knew very little about Walker’s life. It’s possible he has a brother living in Texas, the cemetery said. But despite the long delay between Walker’s death and his burial, no one had come forward on his behalf.
“If you have the opportunity, please come out and attend,” the cemetery told its followers on social media. “We do NOT leave Veterans behind.”
Local TV news station KVUE picked up the call, as did motorcycle clubs and other media, including CNN’s Jake Tapper.
When the time of Walker’s funeral arrived on Monday, news crews captured the moment as uniformed pallbearers bore his coffin into a covered plaza at the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery.
One attendee put the number of people who turned out at more than 1,000. The crowd extended far beyond the plaza’s rows of folding chairs, out onto the pavement where dozens of rows of people stood quietly in the sunshine. Photos showed that the road leading into the cemetery was clogged with vehicles bearing people who wanted to be there for Walker.
Texas officials say Walker served during the Vietnam War, from Sept. 10, 1964, to Sept. 9, 1968, when he left the service with an honorable discharge. At the funeral service, George noted that little else is known about Walker’s military service, including his rank.
“I don’t have a lot of information, but it doesn’t matter,” he said, “because once upon a time, like a lot of us other vets, he signed a blank check for our nation.”
Walker was born on Feb. 28, 1946, and joined the military when he was 18.
“Today, we give him honors,” George said, before leading a prayer in remembrance of Walker — a man whom no one apparently knew, but whom no one wanted to forget.
Walker’s funeral was facilitated by a unit of the Texas General Land Office, a state agency headed by George P. Bush. The military ceremony reflects policies that were changed in 2015, the office’s Karina Erickson told NPR. Before then, she said, the remains of veterans who died without any surviving relatives or other ties were sometimes interred without any recognition of their military service.
Citing new federal and state collaborations in handling veterans’ remains, Erickson said, “All eligible Veterans are now interred with honor and dignity, regardless of where they may have found themselves in life.”
Monday’s military ceremony for Walker ended with a representative from the Veterans Land Board accepting the folded flag that was used during the service. It will be held at the cemetery for 90 days; if no family or next of kin comes forward, it will be flown from the cemetery’s main flagpole.