For more than three decades, Cecil Barnes has stood at attention at the caskets of veterans.
Hundreds of times, he's heard the cracks from the three-volley salute ring across the quiet fields of the state veterans cemetery. He's watched as the flag is tightly folded, each crease made with great care. Countless times he's bowed his head in prayer with the other members of the county veterans council.
During each ceremony, he's listened as a customary statement is read:
"When the call of our country was heard, he answered, and self was forgotten for the cause of a greater good. As a brave man he marched away with the abiding faith in his God, his country and his flag."
But there are times when nobody comes to say goodbye. He's looked up into a room of vacant pews.
"We’ve talked to an empty room a few times,” he recounted. "But we do the same thing no matter what."
It's hard to know how many veterans are buried at the Oregon Trail State Veterans Cemetery whose family couldn't be contacted. Often, those veterans were homeless when they died, said Darrin Brahaney, interim director of the cemetery.
"Indigent veterans usually show up — the funeral home brings them out — in a wood box at best," he said.
Hundreds are expected to travel to the state veterans cemetery outside Evansville on Memorial Day to honor their loved ones who have died. They will walk among the green fields, leaving flowers on the graves.
Some burial sites won't receive any visitors, however. Some have never been visited.
The exact number of homeless veterans in Wyoming is hard to pin down.
According to the 2016 point-in-time count, workers tallied 87 homeless veterans statewide in one night. Of those veterans, 31 did not have shelter and were sleeping outdoors or in places not meant for overnight sleeping, like vehicles or abandoned buildings.
But the point-in-time count is only a snapshot of the problem and can be influenced by a number of factors, experts say. The number is calculated by a team of volunteers and professionals in each community who spend one night each January counting the number of homeless people who are living on the streets or in emergency shelters or temporary housing. The count can be affected by the number of available shelter beds, the weather and the ability of workers to locate those who are homeless.
The data from Wyoming, collected by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, varies widely over the past 10 years. The number of homeless veterans counted remained under 100 between 2007 and 2001 before spiking to 311 in 2012. The number then hovered around 120 until 2016, when it dipped to 87.
Tatum Webb, who coordinates the homeless program at the Cheyenne Veterans Affairs Medical Center, said that the point-in-time numbers aren't perfect but do serve as a starting point. Other sets of numbers also provide further perspective.
Webb said that workers with the Cheyenne VA, which serves southeastern Wyoming and northern Colorado, have made contact with 73 unsheltered veterans in the area since October. In that same time frame, the Cheyenne VA and other programs have moved 49 veterans who were previously homeless into permanent housing.
It's difficult to characterize the veterans who utilize the VA's programs, Webb said. While some are from the area, others have traveled from elsewhere.
There are veterans, mostly the elderly, who become homeless for the first time when their limited incomes can no longer meet rising rents. Some clients were knocked off their feet by a specific financial setback — a layoff or an unexpected expense. Others have long-term issues with their mental or physical health that makes it difficult to pay the bills.
Each veteran has unique needs, Webb said, and the VA, along with a coalition of other organizations, attempts to meet them.
"We really work hard to be collaborative with our community partners, recognizing that this is not an issue that can be solved by one agency or one entity," she said. "We really have got to work together."
Both the VA in Cheyenne and Sheridan offer a variety of housing programs for both the short and long term. The idea, Webb said, is to help veterans find a safe place to live — even if just for a few months — so they can begin planning and saving for the future.
"It’s an opportunity to get off the streets, have a safe place to stay and plan what’s the next step in getting permanent housing," she said.
Combined, the two agencies also have 202 vouchers to subsidize rent for homeless veterans in Wyoming and northern Colorado. Of those vouchers, almost all are being used or are in the hands of veterans looking for permanent housing. Webb said that there are currently 13 more veterans waiting for one of the Cheyenne VA vouchers to become available.
“Eventually the goal — for some folks but not all — is to graduate from the program and not need us,” she said.
Through all of the programs, veterans have access to a case manager who is also a trained counselor. Those managers help connect veterans to other services in their area and throughout the VA, assist in planning and developing life skills and help treat any mental or emotional health issues.
One of the difficulties is finding help for veterans who don't live in an area with a VA clinic, said Curtis Merriam, who coordinates the Sheridan VA housing voucher program. While the VA attempts to connect them to services through partnering organizations, sometimes veterans are compelled to move to a town where a VA center exists that can meet their needs.
Another important factor for helping previously homeless veterans become independent is integrating them socially with their community, Merriam said. Many of the clients he sees in the programs haven't had easy lives and become socially isolated.
“A lot of them sit in their apartments all day," he said.
Merriam hopes that in the future his program will be able to provide more social opportunities for veterans, like taking a trip to Yellowstone National Park. He's currently organizing a grant-funded trip for veterans to travel to the National Ability Center in Park City, Utah, for two days of relationship-building activities, therapy and relaxation.
Ultimately, helping veterans leave the streets takes a coalition of dedicated workers and volunteers, both Webb and Merriam said. It's an impossible job for any one agency or organization.
"You can’t do this work without caring," she said.
Slipping through the cracks
And yet, despite those efforts, some veterans will inevitably slip through the cracks.
That was almost the case with Stephen Reiman, a Vietnam veteran who died in Casper in the fall. Reiman had been transient and had arrived in Wyoming shortly before falling ill. When the county coroner initially couldn't locate his family, the community answered the call.
Hundreds packed the state cemetery's chapel and stood on the snowy grounds to honor the stranger.
"He was a man who lived a solitary life for many, many years, but at his final goodbye there is a room full of community," the pastor said at the service.
That's not the case for all, however.
Brahaney, the interim cemetery director, said that he doesn't track the number of indigent veterans who are buried at the cemetery without family.
“That’s one thing I don’t keep track of — everyone that is interred out here gets treated with the same respect and dignity,” he said.
However, he knows that two or three such veterans have been buried at the cemetery so far this year. Larry Barttelbort, director of the Wyoming Veterans Commission, also didn't know the exact number but said that it happens several times a year.
"It’s very unfortunate when someone — either a veteran or member of the public — when they pass that there’s nobody to say goodbye,” Barttelbort said.
That's where groups like the Natrona County United Veterans Council step in. The nonprofit will conduct military honors for any veteran who has died, even if they have to play taps to an empty chapel.
And almost all veterans, regardless of the amount of money in their bank account, have the right to a burial at the veterans cemetery. They have a right to be buried among their brothers and sisters in arms — a family, though not by blood.
“We honor them as if their family was right there with them," Barttelbort said.