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No one claimed veteran’s remains, so St. Louis hospital arranged for military funeral

By Michele Munz

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    ST. LOUIS, Missouri (St. Louis Post-Dispatch) — “He didn’t have any family,” Chandra White told the group before they left a hospital parking lot in a funeral procession to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.

“But now, he does.”

A U.S. veteran, who died alone in August at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, was buried on Thursday with the full military honors he deserved, something hospital staff worked to ensure.

White leads the hospital’s Office of Decedent Affairs, the only decedent affairs program in Missouri with a team dedicated solely to helping families through the next steps after their loved one dies at the hospital, she said. It’s one of about 10 in the country.

The veteran died at the hospital in August without anyone to claim his body, White said. Her office completed an exhaustive search for next of kin but was unable to locate anyone.

Since the decedent office’s creation in 2018 at BJC HealthCare’s Barnes-Jewish Hospital, the bodies of about 30 patients have been unclaimed.

“We are able to go forward and give them a dignified cremation,” White said. The cremains are kept at the hospital in case any relatives someday surface to claim them.

As part of their search for relatives, the decedent office staff also checks military records.

“If we can determine that they are a veteran, then we are able to give them a dignified farewell with the honors they deserve,” White said. One other unclaimed individual in 2018 was also able to receive a military funeral at Jefferson Barracks.

The veteran interred Thursday served three years in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War era with an honorable discharge, hospital officials said.

The decedent office organized a procession for his cremated remains from a hospital parking lot to Jefferson Barracks. About 30 BJC HealthCare employees who are service members or veterans formed a “line of honor” to salute the procession as it left.

David Rogers, project manager for BJC HealthCare who serves in the U.S. Air Force Reserves, said the group wanted to show that although the veteran died without family members or friends, his legacy will not be forgotten.

“In the military we always look out for each other. … That doesn’t end when someone’s watch is over,” Rogers said.

With Memorial Day a few days away, the salute was also an opportunity to remember the sacrifices of those who have served country, he said: “To honor them, by 1, our presence; and 2, by the way that we carry forward their legacy of service.”

The Barnes-Jewish team invited the Patriot Guard Riders, a volunteer organization that works to ensure respect at memorial services for soldiers, first responders and veterans.

About 30 guard riders with American flags waving from motorcycles and cars led the procession to the cemetery, where they each stood with flags surrounding the funeral service.

“This is what we do,” said rider Neil Hill, 67, of the St. Peters. “Our main goal is to make sure no veteran goes to his final resting place alone.”

The media was also invited to the parking lot before the procession left to learn about the hospital’s decedent program. While hospital officials wanted to tout the program, they did not provide the veteran’s name and initially tried to bar media from attending the funeral, citing patient privacy laws.

“We wanted to share but were advised by our legal team it would be a HIPAA violation. Since their name will be said at the funeral, we were advised to not have media there,” said Laura High, media relations manager for BJC HealthCare, in an email.

HIPAA is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which was passed by Congress in 1996. The law establishes standards to protect individuals’ medical records and other identifiable health information and applies to health plans, health care clearinghouses and health care providers.

Although the hospital declined to identify the veteran, his name, Robert Lawrence Openlander, is on the Jefferson Barracks burial schedule. The Patriot Guard Riders also listed his name on their mission calendar.

The Veteran Legacy Memorial website lists Openlander’s date of birth as Dec. 7, 1942, the first anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, making him 78 when he died last year.

A public records search provides small glimpses into his life. A U.S. Navy publication from 1970 shows he served on the USS Robert E. Byrd, a destroyer.

A marriage record from 1981 shows at the age of 39, he married a Lois Kimball, age 27, of De Soto. His residence then was listed as Jennings.

The 1950 U.S. census shows him as a 7-year-old living with parents Lawrence and Fern Openlander in the 5600 block of Chippewa in the Southhampton neighborhood.

Robert Openlander is the only child listed in Fern Openlander’s obituary, which was published in 1973.

The Rev. Suzanne Anderson-Hurdle, chaplain for Barnes-Jewish Hospital, gave Openlander’s eulogy under a shelter at Jefferson Barracks. The Patriot Guard’s flags flapped in a strong breeze as clouds rolled in.

“Though we may not know a lot about this man, we know he served. We know that he was loved,” Anderson-Hurdle said, “hopefully by parents who helped support him as he grew up, giving him a foundation on which to build his life. We hope he knew love of a partner or a spouse, children or nieces or nephews, extended family and chosen friends.”

A rifle party fired a three-volley salute. A bugler played taps. Two Navy sailors in white uniforms quietly and carefully folded an American flag. One kneeled to place the flag in White’s lap.

The flag will be kept in a case at the hospital, White said, waiting for family — if they ever come.

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