Leander veteran Mark Lyle Walker found a family Thursday morning - at his funeral.
"He is no longer unclaimed," said Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell, Jr. "The people of Williamson County claim him and we're proud to have him as a part of our family."
An overflow crowd of more than 400 Williamson County veterans, police and residents filled Beck Funeral Home in Cedar Park to honor the Leander veteran who none of them knew and none of them had ever met.
Walker, 58, died on Aug. 25 and was subsequently listed as an "unaccompanied veteran" when no known family members could be located.
Gravell said he was honored and "blown away" by the turnout.
"He's worth of more than a simple cremation," he said during his eulogy. "He's worth of all honor that anyone who served our nation receives."
In order to "give him the honor he deserves," the Williamson County Commissioners Court partnered with the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10427 of Leander and Beck Funeral Home to cover the cost of an indigent burial and funeral service. Williamson County invited the public to attend the service
Unfortunately, we don't know much about Walker. We know from his service records that he served as a submariner in the U.S. Navy in the 1970s and 1980s, including as a submarine sonar technician on the USS Ulysses S. Grant.
We know he re-enlisted and eventually was honorably discharged, having received the Navy Good Conduct medal, the "Deterrent Patrol pin with two silver stars," the "Submarine Warfare Silver 'dolphins' badge' and the Sea Service Deployment Ribbon.
We know he "loved Renaissance Festivals." We know he had a reputation for "adopting" any homeless person or stray animal he met, inviting them into his house and helping them in any way he could, despite being a "10 percent disabled vet" with limited income.
We know hundreds of Williamson County residents turned out to "adopt" him at his funeral so "if he wasn't known in life, he was known in death."
We know he took in his friend Darrell Mantooth during "junior high school." We know they stayed in touch for 42 years and when Walker didn't have a house towards the end of his life, Mantooth returned the favor and took him in.
Sadly, we know Walker died alone of natural cause while Mantooth was traveling and was discovered while Mantooth was video chatting with his son, who was visiting the house. We know officials were unable to find any known family members.
"Sadly, we're seeing the situation more often for veterans than most people realize," said Mitch Fuller, commander of VFW Post 10427.
During the service, Mantooth confessed to being afraid it would only be himself and his son at Walker's funeral.
"I'm blown away by all of this...I don't even know what to say," Mantooth said. "I'm from San Antonio, Texas. That's my hometown. Well, that's changed - my hometown is now Leander, Texas and Williamson County."
Rabbi Jonathan Dade of Georgetown, a veteran himself, officiated the service.
"The unfortunate thing is not a lot of people paid much attention to Mark while he was alive," Dade said. "That's why it's so important that we're here to pay attention to him right now. It's typical in the veteran community that we don't always pay attention to each other. Sometimes we don't realize each other is struggling. No matter what foreign war or what capacity someone served, please take the time to introduce yourself to them, invite them over for dinner, get them connected with the local American Legion or VFW because we need these resources."
Terry Craig, speaking on the behalf of VFW Post 10427, told the crowd, "As I look out over all of you, I see a family he just did not know he had."
Leander Council member Jason Shaw, a 23-year veteran, said he attended because "it was on my heart" and he felt Walker "deserved his last respect - he served his country."
"With all the toxicity, discord and hatred going on, it's good to see people come together and celebrate this man's life. There were Republicans, Democrats, conservatives and liberals - it's good to see them put all that aside for what's really important and give this man what he deserves."
Three submariner veterans who attended Walker's funeral - 24-year veteran Harry Ullmann, 6-year veteran Joe Keller and 10-year veteran Shawn O'Shea - said they feel they are part of brotherhood with Walker and needed to support him.
"Once a submariner, always a submariner," Keller said.
They spoke about how discovering and participating in the United States Submarine Veterans-Central Texas Base, located in Round Rock, had helped them bond and deal with their experiences in the service together.
They called it a "missed opportunity" that they were unable to meet and potentially help Walker before his death. They said a big hurdle is often that veterans don't even know there are groups of other veterans - whether its the USSVI , the VFW or other groups- who meet regularly meet and can help each other out.
They urged all veterans to go online and find a local base, post or other group in their community.
Following the service in Cedar Park, a burial with full military honors was held for Walker later that morning at Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery in Killeen.