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Community gathers for veteran's funeral, family not located

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HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Many of the 100-plus attendees at the recent funeral for Army Spc. Michael J. Gilmer at the Montana State Veterans Cemetery had never met the veteran.

Gilmer, 52, died in late October in the Fort Harrison Veterans Affairs Medical Center's intensive care unit. Hospital staff said Gilmer has family, but they could not be contacted.

“It’s not often someone dies totally unconnected like this,” said hospital chaplain Tim Weidlich, speaking of patients at the local VA hospital.

Staff did not know much about Gilmer.

After going through his papers following his death, they discovered he had received the Army Commendation Medal for his part in securing Baghdad during Operation Iraqi Freedom as part of the 506th Regiment Combat Team, an airborne light infantry regiment first established during World War II, and the 4th Infantry Division, based out of Fort Carson, Colorado.

Staff Sgt. Russell Smith of the Montana Army National Guard serves as the outfit’s full-time religious affairs non-commissioned officer. Smith said Weidlich reached out to him recently to help spread the word about the funeral service. He posted a message to his social media account, writing that the VA staff was “asking for anyone willing and able to attend to help give him an honorable service.”

“My goal was to have a couple of people attend,” Weidlich said during the service. “By my count, we did.”

The more than 100 nurses, fellow veterans and community members gathered Thursday in the modest pavilion at the cemetery’s southern end, the Independent Record reported.

After words and prayer from Weidlich, members of the Lewis and Clark Veteran Honor Guard gave Gilmer a proper military send-off, including a rendition of “Taps” played by a lone horn.

A bagpiper from Helena’s Pipes and Drums of the Black Devils bellowed “Amazing Grace” as Gilmer was laid to rest in the cemetery.

“Even in times when we feel unknown, it’s just not true,” Weidlich said during the ceremony before reading the Old Testament words of King David acknowledging God’s continual presence. “If only my life is remembered by a family like this.”

Numerous members of veterans groups also paid their respects.

Weidlich referred to the crowd as the military family and expressed thanks for their presence in place of Gilmer’s biological family.

“It really is a family,” he said in an interview following the ceremony. “They want to ensure no soldier is left behind.”

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