COLUMBIA — He died with no family claiming him, but Petty Officer 3rd Class James Miske was surrounded by hundreds of people Friday at Fort Jackson National Cemetery where he would be buried.
Miske, 75, was a Vietnam War veteran who served in the Navy from 1965 to 1967. He received a National Defense Service Medal and a Vietnam Service Medal with Bronze Star, according to Caughman-Harman Funeral Home in Lexington, which handled the arrangements.
Along with John Steubinger, George Shaw, Danny Ballentyn, Joseph Williams and now Miske — this is the fifth funeral of an unclaimed veteran that Pastor Mark Bredholt has presided over.
"This is not our first and, unfortunately, I believe, not our last," said William Lynch of Caughman-Harman Funeral Home. "In one year, we have laid six unclaimed veterans to rest."
Joshua Potts was the first, in September.
But this is the first time news of a burial has spread this far, reaching beyond the state headlines to national outlets, including CNN.
"He is not unclaimed," Lynch said to applause. "Not just a state, a country has come together to claim him as their own."
Bredholt said, there are usually maybe 100 people in attendance, but the crowd Friday spilled onto the lawn surrounding the funeral pavilion.
Military personnel in full dress uniforms stood at attention. Another veteran saluted from his wheelchair as the silver, flag-draped casket passed by. When the guns fired the final salute, women gripped the shoulders of stoic children grasping flags.
Miske was born in 1944 in Chicago and died May 26. He was in Hospice Care when he died.
More than 150 Patriot Guard motorcyclists, wearing vests emblazoned with insignia from Desert Storm, Iraq and other conflicts, and 100 vehicles, many with flags fluttering from their windows, participated in the miles-long funeral procession, joining the many more gathered at the cemetery.
When Marshall Swanson of Columbia, a Vietnam veteran himself, serving in the Army from 1969 to 1970, read about Miske's lack of known family, it reminded him of the isolation many military returning from the Vietnam War faced.
"So many soldiers were pariahs. It struck a cord," he said. "So I'm glad to see the turnout. It's a nice reflection on the community."
"I was a soldier myself," said Ronnie Wyche of Columbia, who served in the Army during Desert Storm. "To me, we're all family. To hear there was no one found to lay him to rest, to me it was an obligation to come."
Miske's funeral was arranged through the Dignity Memorial Homeless Veteran Program, said Lynch, who comes from a family of veterans himself.
"I think it's important to take care of this group of Americans," he said. "It shouldn't matter if they don't have family."
"There’s a need and, until there isn’t, we’ll keep doing it," Lynch said.