COLUMBIA -- A U.S. Army veteran who served for more than a decade but died alone three years ago has become the first serviceman given a military funeral under a new South Carolina law that aims to make sure everyone who serves honorably is buried with proper respect.
The law allows coroners or funeral directors with unclaimed remains to release information about the dead person to veteran and military groups to see if the deceased is a veteran who has earned a funeral and burial will full military honors.
Staff Sgt. John Rieser died in October 2009 in Conway. He was an only child and his parents had already passed away, so his remains went unclaimed. Rieser’s co-workers at a convenience store near the trailer where he lived said Rieser was likely a veteran. Horry County Coroner Robert Edge wanted Rieser to get a proper burial, but he didn’t know what to do.
His answer came this year with a bill pushed by two American Legion members. Larry Truax and John Bianchi are friends, motorcycle riders and native New Yorkers. They saw that their home state passed a law allowing the names of the dead not claimed by relatives to be checked for military service and decided South Carolina needed a similar law. The measure passed the state House and Senate with no opposition and was signed into law in May.
“We didn’t want to see that happen to any veteran. We want any veteran who unfortunately didn’t have anyone around to claim them to get the honors they deserve,” said Bianchi who served in the Air Force for nearly four years during the Korean War era.
The men helped prove Rieser was a veteran. Along with Edge, they helped arrange for a funeral at the Florence National Cemetery.
“I was amazed at what this community has done. They are so supportive and they are so proud of those who have served,” said cemetery director Carolyn Howard.
A headstone will be placed on Rieser’s grave with his name, dates of birth and death, his service branch, rank and dates of service.
Officials don’t know how many veterans could get funerals through the unclaimed remains law. Truax, Bianchi and friends at American Legion posts across the state are contacting funeral home associations and coroners to tell them about it.
“We want to give every guy and woman the treatment they deserved so they don’t go unnoticed,” Bianchi said. “They get the 21-gun salute, they get the flag, the chaplain — the whole ceremony.”
Edge is letting other coroners know about the new law too. Horry County doesn’t have a pauper’s cemetery, so Edge didn’t have to decide whether to keep Rieser’s remains in storage or to bury them. Other coroners often bury remains to save money. Edge is thankful the law gives his colleagues another option.
“It’s sad a lot of people end up like him with no family and their means of support are limited,” Edge said. “He fought for the country and it’s something he worked for and deserved.”