High school shop class makes urns for unclaimed veterans

Remains of homeless, indigent veterans interred

By CHRIS BOYETTE, CNN
Larry Gallegos/Bernalillo County via CNN

Students at Valley High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, made 18 of these handcrafted wooden urns to hold the remains of veterans.

(CNN) - A high school shop class in New Mexico is making sure the cremated remains of homeless and indigent veterans are interred with class.

Gino Perez's wood and metal shop class at Valley High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, made 18 handcrafted wooden urns adorned with the symbols of all the branches of the military. This year, nine of them will be used to hold the remains of U.S. military veterans.

"I wanted to make it real clear the status of these Americans -- they're mostly homeless and they were also veterans with full military honors and nobody claimed their bodies," said Perez.

On any given night in America, there are more than 40,000 homeless veterans, according to the latest estimate by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

When honorably discharged, homeless or indigent veterans die in New Mexico, the Forgotten Heroes Burial Program provides a full military funeral at Santa Fe National Cemetery if there are no family members or friends to claim their remains or there is no money to provide for their funeral services, according to the New Mexico Department of Veterans' Services. The program launched in 2011.

"We will do a full on military funeral with Taps, a three-volley salute, the governor gives a eulogy and we invite the public to be a part," said Ray Seva, a spokesman for the New Mexico Department of Veterans' Services. "The public and the other veterans there, they become like the family."

"We provide the final salute that they deserve," Seva said.

The veterans' remains have historically been placed in black cardboard boxes, said Larry Gallegos, a spokesman for Bernalillo County.

"They were elegant and nice but he (Perez) said they deserve more than a cardboard box," Gallegos said.

"It's a lot more dignified, in my opinion, to be encased in wood," Perez said.

Perez, who has been a teacher for four years and is a Navy veteran himself was looking for a way to get his students involved in the community while learning about metal and woodworking.

"I've never seen a group of students engage in a project like this. Even students that were down on the military for whatever reason -- they've all got their politics -- would say we're doing a good thing," Perez said.

Perez's three shop classes of about 30, mostly freshmen, students each completed the boxes in just the first few weeks of school.

"It was one of the neatest things I've ever seen," said Perez. "The speed which they did these projects is amazing."

He added: "We set it up kind of like an assembly line -- a project-based learning idea. Some accused me of sneaking in to work on the urns at night, but I assure you the kids did it all. All I did was keep them off their phones and keep them safe working with the equipment."

The students' work will be recognized Sept. 20 at an assembly that will include New Mexico Department of Veterans' Services Secretary Jack Fox, Bernalillo County Commissioner Debbie O'Malley and Joshua McManigal of Daniels Family Funeral Services, who all partner in the Forgotten Heroes Burial Program.

"It is amazing what these kids did," Perez said. "Most of the students are freshmen. They never had experience working with these tools. To be honest I was blown away."

"The gravity will set in when they have their assembly," he said.

This year's the forgotten heroes burial will take place on Oct. 4, Seva said.

There will be a ceremony in Albuquerque where the remains will be put in a hearse and turned over from Bernalillo County to the state Department of Veterans' Services, Gallegos said. They will then travel 55 miles to Santa Fe escorted by police cars, fire engines and about 100 motorcycle-riding veterans who are members the American Legion Riders.

"They served our country and they should be given the respectful burial that they deserve," Gallegos said.

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