Fallen Knoxville homeless veterans receive military funeral ceremony

KNOXVILLE (WATE) – Around 60,000 homeless veterans in the U.S. are left wondering who’s going to take care of funeral arrangements when they pass away, but four East Tennessee veterans are not part of that statistic, receiving Tuesday the funerals they deserve.

The Regional Forensic Center identified these gentlemen and spent months trying to find family to no avail. Those four veterans who once didn’t have a home finally found a place at East Tennessee Veterans Cemetery.

“When they got out they just fell on bad luck, couldn’t find a job, had a lot of problems,” said Rick Phipps with Dignity Memorial Funeral Homes. “All veterans deserve a funeral like this.”

Airman William Fite, Pvt. Larry Deboer, Seaman Apprentice Steven Johnson, and Cpl. Ronald Barton all died with no family by their side.


“It breaks my heart. It breaks my heart and everyone here today, we’re their family,” said Karen Strickland of Knoxville.

Four American flags were folded and given to cherish. Strickland received one of those flags.

“My dad is Navy so getting to know him would’ve been amazing,” she said.

All of the glory that would be at any other veteran funeral was shown, but one thing also came to mind.

“When a veteran dies that’s just homeless, it brings home a point that somewhere we failed,” said John Lott of the Regional Forensic Center. “They did service for our country and as it is our country, we need to honor them.”

Fite, 82, was born May 18, 1933, and died July 1, 2015, at a Knoxville homeless shelter. Airman Fite served with the U.S. Air Force from 1954 to 1959 and was with Headquarters 15th Air Force, Strategic Air Command.

Deboer, 72, was born November 24, 1942, in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He passed away February 5, 2015, at UT Medical Center. He served with Company B, 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry APO SF 96225, U.S. Army in Hawaii. Pvt. Deboer served as a Lite Weapons Infantryman from 1963 to 1965 with 18 months foreign service.

Johnson, 62, was born January 9, 1952, and died December 29, 2014. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1969 to 1970 aboard the USS Pawcatuck AO 108 including two months foreign/sea service.

Barton, 54, was born February 16, 1961, and died April 8t, 2015. He enter the U.S. Marine Corps at Seattle, Washington in 1979 and served until 1986. He was an Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting Specialist, as well as a field radio operator.

The veterans’ clothing, caskets and planning for the funeral service were all provided by Dignity Memorial. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs donated the grave liner, as well as the headstone or marker, among other things.

The homeless veteran program was created in 2000 and since then, more than 1,600 burials have been arranged for homeless veterans.

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