They came in jeans and boots, in cowboy hats and leather jackets, in Navy sailor hats and Army fatigues to stand in the snow and honor a man they never knew.
They filled the pews of the chapel, shoulder to shoulder in heavy winter jackets, and lined the stone walls. When the chapel was full, hundreds more spilled into the entryway and onto the icy grounds of the cemetery.
When the Natrona County coroner asked people to attend the funeral of a homeless Vietnam veteran, people across the Mountain West answered the call.
They traveled from Colorado, Montana, Utah and across Wyoming to the state veterans cemetery in Evansville on Tuesday for the funeral of Stephen Carl Reiman, a 63-year-old Vietnam veteran whose lonely death in Casper drew national attention.
Among the strangers was one person Stephen had known well in life — his sister, Diane. When she learned of her brother’s death on Saturday, Diane made hasty plans to travel to Casper from her Southern California home to say goodbye to her little brother.
“I had to be here,” she said, sitting in the chapel after the service. “It’s been overwhelming, all the love.”
Many at the cemetery had only a vague sense of who the veteran was. They knew he was homeless and lived with PTSD, alcoholism and depression. They knew he loved Bruce Springsteen and had traveled from California to Sheridan. They knew he deserved a hero’s funeral.
But Diane knew her brother as the boy who loved to play soldier as a child and who loved to go bowling. She knew him as the resourceful man who worked hard to overcome his addiction and keep a job. She knew him as a man who was haunted by the work he did as a sailor in Vietnam and by a turbulent family history but continued to live as best he could.
Stephen would call her every few years — always from a different cell number. She had last heard from him in 2010, but the number he called from was out of service when she tried to call back. His post office box was closed. He had disappeared, again.
More than anything, she feared that her brother would die alone on the streets. That he would be buried in an anonymous grave in an unknown part of the country. That she would never know whether he had passed. That his death would never be marked.
Instead, many of the parking spots surrounding the chapel were filled by 9:15 a.m. — 45 minutes before the service was scheduled to begin. Then came the procession: trucks, SUVs from the Natrona County Sheriff’s Office, police cars from Casper, Mills and Evansville.
As the hearse carrying Stephen’s body rolled by, a man in a leather jacket and chaps snapped his hand up in salute. Springsteen’s voice played over the chapel speakers.
Waiting to enter the chapel after the hearse arrived, one man in a Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association vest gestured to the crowd and said to a friend: “This is the way every veteran should go.”
The air inside the chapel warmed as people squeezed into its pews and leaned against its walls, listening to a young woman play her viola. Even before the service began, a few people started to cry, perhaps overwhelmed by the outpouring of love for a stranger.
The crowd stood as Stephen’s flag-draped casket entered the chapel and pallbearers escorted it to the front of the room to rest just in front of his sister, Diane. A moment of unplanned, profound silence echoed off the wooden walls.
During the service, Pastor Rob Peterson said he was proud that the Casper community “made sure that when his flag is folded and taps is played, that there is a room full of people to honor him.”
“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,” said the pastor, who serves as a chaplain in the Army National Guard.
The pastor spoke directly to the other veterans in the crowd and asked them to remember that even if they are feeling the same sense of isolation and pain as Stephen, they are surrounded by a community that supports them and is grateful for their sacrifice.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” he said, quoting the Bible.
A member of the Natrona County United Veterans Council asked the veterans and active duty military members to stand before the rifle salute. Most of the people in the room rose, their jackets and hats bearing patches from the Vietnam War, Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. The men and women silently saluted their brother in arms as two men folded the flag that had covered Stephen’s casket.
A young man in a sailor’s uniform placed the flag in Diane’s arms. He saluted her.
“This is Steve’s flag, and now it is yours,” he said.
After the service ended, Diane walked to the back of the chapel with tears in her eyes. She stood in the chapel’s entryway and greeted well-wishers. A line of strangers stretched out the doors as people waited to speak to Diane, to offer words of comfort or of hope. Some wanted only to give her a hug.
Three ICU nurses from Wyoming Medical Center approached her. They told Diane that they were the ones who cared for her brother when he died.
He went quickly, they said. He didn’t suffer. He wasn’t completely alone.
Outside, people visited the graves of other veterans buried in the cemetery, brushing the snow off the small granite plaques in the ground.
“I’m so glad my hometown honors veterans like this — even turning out en masse for a stranger,” said Darrell Morehouse, a 74-year-old Air Force veteran who attended the funeral. “It’s really something.”
Reiman will be buried with fellow servicemen and servicewomen in the Wyoming cemetery. His sister will return home Thursday with armfuls of bouquets, cards from well-wishers and her brother’s flag.
Many of the bouquets had cards thanking Reiman for his service. Another wished him “fair winds and following seas,” an old sailor’s blessing.
The simple card on one bouquet — a bunch of red, white and blue flowers — didn’t give a name or location for the sender. It bore only four words:
“From a grateful nation.”