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Hundreds pay last respects to homeless Navy vet

Members of the Navy Honor Guard salute during a funeral for Jerry Billings May 1. The Honor Guard also performed a flag folding ceremony during the service for the homeless veteran.

Members of the Navy Honor Guard salute during a funeral for Jerry Billings May 1. The Honor Guard also performed a flag folding ceremony during the service for the homeless veteran.

Members of the Patriot Guard Riders salute and show their respects during a flag folding ceremony at the Fort Sill National Cemetery May 4. (Air Force photo by Kelly White/Released)

Members of the Patriot Guard Riders salute and show their respects during a flag folding ceremony at the Fort Sill National Cemetery May 4. (Air Force photo by Kelly White/Released)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, OKLA. -- It was a sentiment openly said and deeply felt among those who attended Navy veteran Jerry Bryan Billings' funeral service last Friday: Mr. Billings may have had no known next of kin, but he had plenty of family.

More than 100 Sailors from Tinker's Strategic Communications Wing One, dozens of leather-jacketed bikers from the Patriot Guard Riders and Rolling Thunder, and active duty and retired members of the Air Force, Army and Marines showed up for Mr. Billings' service with full military honors.

In all, about 300 members of Mr. Billings' military family filled, and stood beside, the pews of Bill Eisenhour Funeral Home in Del City, with dozens more attendees outside. It was the largest turnout ever among the 19 metro-area funerals organized by Dignity Memorial's Homeless Veterans Burial Program.

Retired Navy Chaplain Charles Anderson presided over the 45-minute service in front of Mr. Billings' flag-draped coffin, flanked by Navy honor guard members.

"We've assembled because we are today Jerry's closest friends and family," Chaplain Anderson said. "We are honoring him, and we are honoring his service to our nation."
Mr. Billings, 69, died Christmas Eve in Oklahoma City. He was born March 11, 1945, in Sulphur. He entered the Navy in 1964 and trained as an aviation machinist mate on reciprocating engines.

Mr. Billings' service through 1968 included more than two years of sea duty. His last assignment was with an aircraft ferrying squadron, nicknamed the Storkliners, at Naval Air Station Norfolk, Va. He also earned the National Defense Service Medal.

The funeral came about through the efforts of Oklahoma County Social Services worker Christine Hoffman, who searched for more information about the homeless veteran before turning to Todd Tramel, a general manager with Dignity Memorial and organizer of the service.

Several veteran services organizations also joined in, including American Legion Post 353, VFW Post 9969, Catholic War Veterans Post 168, VFW Post 1857 and the Youth Trumpet & Taps Corps.

Mr. Tramel called the turnout "amazing."

"The more people that we can have to celebrate these men's and women's lives that we honor, the better," Mr. Tramel said. "They fought for our country. They provided us the freedoms that we have, and it's very patriotic to see this kind of turnout to honor a gentleman's life."

Patriot Guard Riders escorted Mr. Billings' body Monday to Fort Sill National Cemetery for burial. The veteran's flag will be displayed at the YMCA Military Welcome Center at Will Rogers World Airport.

Master Chief Petty Officer Nicholas Sibley attended the service, which he called emotional and respectful. The chief said he was grateful to military members who attended. "I think it was great," Chief Sibley said.

Bob Lambert, chaplain of VFW Post 9969, said the veteran turnout for Mr. Billings built up over a number of days before the service.

"Some came from as far as Tulsa," Mr. Lambert said. "When we put the word out, they show up."