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Procession of police officers and bikers escort Veteran through his Final Mile

Members of the Dole VA Police Department and Veteran biker groups salute Army Veteran Robert Williams Stephens Jr. during a recent Final Mile ceremony.

Army Veteran Robert William Stephens, Jr., recently passed away while an inpatient at Robert J. Dole VA Medical Center. Alaina Reyes, Decedent Affairs Specialist for Dole VA, discovered Mr. Stephens had no next of kin.

Ms. Reyes launched a dynamic effort to organize a Final Mile procession for Mr. Stephens. She reached out to Wulf-Ast Mortuaries in Garden Plain, Kansas, to handle the preparations for burial, then contacted the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association, American Legion Riders, VFW Riders, VA Police Department, and the Wichita community to volunteer as escorts and participants in the ceremony.

“We had so many people ready to step up and send our Veteran home with honor,” she said. “Every organization stepped up without hesitation.”

When Dole VA Police Sergeant Shane Russell reached out to Wichita Police Department Motor Sergeant Michael Lloyd and asked if he and a squad of his fellow motorcycle officers could accompany the Veteran on his journey, his answer was emphatic.

“Several of our officers, including me, are Veterans, so it was an unequivocal ‘Yes, we want to do this’,” Sgt. Lloyd said. “It’s important for us to be here for the Veteran and escort him to his final resting place.”

The assembled motorcade escorted Mr. Stephens along a winding path to the Kansas Veterans’ Cemetery in Winfield. Along the way, the route was kept open with help from police departments in Wichita, Derby, Mulvane, and Winfield — who blocked intersections until joining the procession as it exited town — and members of the Kansas Highway Patrol, Sedgwick County Sheriff, and Cowley County Sheriff added to the growing line of escorts.

VA Police Officer Russell said the entire event was a moving tribute to a Veteran who had dutifully served his country.

“All the flags, the bugles, the long lines of Veteran bikers and police officers, made sure Mr. Robert William Stephens Jr. didn’t have to take that final mile alone,” said Sgt. Russell, who serves as the VA PD community relations officer. “Every Veteran deserves that — every last one of them — and I was proud to be a small part of it.”

Mr. Stephens enlisted in the U.S. Army on July 30, 1973. He spent three days shy of three years on active duty, with more than 2.5 years of that time spent deployed overseas with U.S. Army Europe.

The Final Mile ceremony originated at James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital (JAHVA) in Tampa, Florida, and aims to ensure all Veterans receive a dignified burial. This protocol can be initiated when a Veteran passes with no known family and provides memorial services for those Veterans to ensure they are honored at the end of their lives.

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