Graves of the forgotten: Buford-based 'Project' a final salute to bygone veterans

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

BUFORD -- The final ride for the forgotten begins on a blistering, cloudless morning at Buford's American Legion Post 127, a parking-lot gathering of leather-clad bikers, uniformed police and more formally dressed Legionnaires.

The destination is Canton's Georgia National Cemetery, a patriotic resting place with sweeping mountain vistas some 40 miles northwest.

The centerpiece of the day's procession is two black cardboard boxes. Within them are the cremated remains of two U.S. Army veterans dead for a combined 25 years, their ashes found when a southwest Atlanta funeral home went belly up in 2006. On which battlefield they served, where they lived, what family they had, what hobbies they toiled in, how they died -- it's all anybody's guess. What human tracks they laid may never be unearthed, but that's of secondary concern to this procession.

This much is fact: In one box lay the cremains of U.S. Army PFC-E3 Lonnie Brown Jr., age 76 upon his September 1995 death. He served for three years until his honorable discharge in January 1946.

In the other, U.S. Army Cpl.-E4 Milton Carter Jr., age 50 when he died in 1998. He'd served about two years, separating honorably in August 1963.

What matters this day is that they served America, each of them in their 20s, in a bygone time before they slipped through society's cracks. A two-person team in Buford, part of the national Missing in America Project, has worked to prove this, and now to honor the men with a flag-bedecked cavalcade across metro Atlanta's outermost reaches.

The soldiers are the 11th and 12th veterans to be interred in Canton by project leaders. who started looking just six months ago, after reading an article about said funeral home going under. Their motto: "It's the Right Thing To Do."

All of the veterans are unclaimed, which means their families do not know they're dead, do not care or have vanished, like the veterans themselves. Until now.

"There are people all over the country just sitting on shelves -- some stored in paint cans, some in just plastic bags," said Guy Webb, the project's coordinator in Georgia and the American Legion's sergeant at arms. "They earned this ceremony, this right, the day they got their honorable discharge."

The cavalcade to honor the forgotten -- a thunderstorm of Harley-Davidsons and Goldwings, police in Mustangs and on motorcycles with blues flashing, too many American flags to count -- pours from the parking lot and slinks west on Ga. Highway 20, stoplights be damned. Commuters park at the roadside and pay homage with stern salutes or raised thumbs; the reverence continues across the Chattahoochee River and beyond produce stands in Forsyth County, past hilltop subdivisions and the Cumming Promenade, beyond Ducktown yard sales, the rustic barns and feed shacks of Cherokee County and at last to Veteran Cemetery Road, the peaks of lower Appalachia shrouded in heat.

Gainesville's Hal Lowder, a Patriot Guard Rider and Desert Storm vet, has made the trek for men he never knew. Here's why:

"It's part of the creed, to never leave a guy behind," Lowder said. "We're probably the only troops in the world that do that. This is big for us. It's just like bringing a guy home off the battlefield and getting him where he belongs, somewhere he can rest a while."

Even non-military participants bespeak the brotherhood.

"I was too young for Vietnam and disqualified for those (wars) that followed," said Patriot Guard Rider Skip Sevier of Buford. "But I think that honoring these guys is an important thing. The touching thing about this gathering ... it's a volunteer army."

As such, said Webb, the cost to inter the veterans is minimal. The Georgia National Cemetery provides the plot and headstone.

Nationally, the project claims to have found nearly 7,000 cremains -- 3,500 in a single institution -- and interred more than 600. Webb said he's called each funeral home and mortuary in Georgia, and a fair share of the state's medical examiners, looking for information -- even partial Social Security numbers -- to qualify remains.

Georgia is tricky, in that laws governing the possession of cremains often vary by county, sometimes creating a Bermuda Triangle between funeral directors, coroners and rural sheriffs, Webb said.

"You know there's going to be more (forgotten veterans) -- you don't want to see them, you hope there aren't, but you know it's going to happen again," Webb said. "I'll drive to the Florida border if I have to, to facilitate what has to be done."

A rifle salute shatters the cemetery's tranquility. "Amazing Grace" sings from bagpipes. In prayer, Webb says death is but the gateway to a more glorious life.

Seated in bowed reverence is honorary Gold Star mother Candice King of Decatur, whose son, Army specialist Ryan C. King, was killed in Afghanistan last year at age 22.

"I offered to stand in," said King, the recipient of customary, folded flags in lieu of family. "I just thought it's important to honor all the soldiers who served."

The procession concludes. Brown and Carter are interred with honor.

Afterward, Betty Herring, the project's assistant coordinator, said she has a singular goal: Find all of Georgia's shelved or forgotten veterans and never stop looking.

"We have no idea how many are out there," Herring said. "However many there are, that's how many we want."