'He is home at last'
Posted January 11, 2018 7:58 p.m. EST
The casket sat at the front of the chapel, wrapped with an American flag, containing the remains of a soldier who had died seven decades earlier.
It had taken a long time to find Army Pfc. Lonnie B.C. Eichelberger - who enlisted at age 16 and died in World War II at age 20 - but the military had found him. And now, under a gray Texas sky, he was going to be buried in home soil. Descendants could feel a sense of closure. The mantra of "no soldier left behind" was going to feel true.
Soft music played through the chapel's speakers. Six members of an honor guard from Fort Sam Houston entered, their black shoes shining, their white gloves spotless. They gripped the casket and marched in sync, seven steps to the right and then out to the waiting hearse.
Cheyenne Eichelberger, dressed in a black suit and yellow tie, followed behind. He had never met the man - his great uncle. He hadn't even been born when Lonnie entered the military. But he knew the story. He felt a sense of gratitude and pride.
"It puts the final seal on the chapter of Lonnie's life," Cheyenne said.
This was a day, Cheyenne knew, his grandmother would have loved to see. She had talked to him some about Lonnie, her only brother; about how they had grown up in a farming family in China Spring, a rural Texas community outside of Waco; how Lonnie - a black soldier during a time of segregation - had been killed fighting but his body never recovered.
A limo awaited, and Cheyenne got inside. A family friend and a reverend accompanied him, as did a military representative. The procession of vehicles pulled out of the Katy-area funeral home, with an escort of four Houston Police officers on motorcycles shepherding the way.
It was a 37-minute drive to the Houston National Cemetery. And it would be an hour more before Lonnie's remains - one final time - would be lowered into the ground.
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If one thing was certain Wednesday, it was that the decades had not erased the sacrifice Lonnie B.C. Eichelberger had made.
Locating his remains had not been easy.
Lonnie had been part of the only black infantry division to fight in Europe during World War II, according to Army records. The members of the 92nd Infantry Division were known as "Buffalo Soldiers," a nickname given to them by Native Americans after the Civil War. Lonnie died in battle in February 1945 in northern Italy, near the coast, but a search-and-recovery team had not been able to return to the location for months, as the war neared an end. When officials discovered the remains, they could not be identified. They were buried in a cemetery outside of Florence.
Officials removed them in 1948, when they were declared still unidentifiable, and again in 2016, when a link to the 92nd division was established.
In late 2017, Cheyenne, a retired Navy veteran, had received the phone call at his Fort Bend County home: Based on dental records, DNA and other evidence, U.S. Department of Defense officials believed they had located his great uncle's remains.
Dozens of people awaited them at the cemetery. They included the Patriot Guard Riders ("Standing for Those Who Stood For Us"), the National Memorial Ladies ("'No Soldier Old Or Young Will Ever Be Buried Alone"), Blue Star Mothers ("To support the Armed Forces of the United States of America and its Veterans"), and Rolling Thunder ("We Will Not Forget").
They saluted as the honor guard removed the casket. Cheyenne took out his cell phone and aimed it toward the procession as they marched forward. He placed his hand over his heart as they placed the coffin on the pavilion platform. The air was chilly but not cold.
The headstone, narrow and gray, identical to the thousands of others lined in neat rows around them, was displayed nearby:
LONNIE B EICHELBERGER
PFC US ARMY
WORLD WAR II
OCT 18 1924
FEB 10 1945
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Cheyenne had not expected to see all of these groups. He would remember the moment, he later said.
The honor guard folded the flag in a series of coordinated motions, faces stoic. They picked up their guns and aimed them toward the sky.
Three volleys cracked through the silence. Everyone saluted. Taps was played. Cheyenne saluted.
He first received the flag, then a box of medals Lonnie had been posthumously awarded, then certificates and pins from the various groups.
"He is home at last," one woman said.
An entire agency, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, is tasked with finding more than 82,000 veterans from wars past. Lonnie was just one. Two hundred others are listed on the agency's website as accounted for in 2017.
It was 11:29 a.m. when the pastor, Richard Booker, from the Kendleton area, stepped forward. Also an Army veteran, he had only recently learned of Lonnie's story from Cheyenne, his friend of more than five years.
"We're grateful for the service of men such as this and so many others," Booker said to the crowd. "We salute him today, the service that he provided and the freedom that we now enjoy."
Cheyenne had been given the option of having the remains buried in Italy or Texas. He chose the latter, finding it important that his great uncle be returned to the country that he died fighting for.
The plane with the remains had arrived the day prior at Hobby Airport. Fire trucks launched an arch of water over the aircraft. Passengers were held on board while the casket was removed.
"It now becomes my duty to commit his body to the ground," Booker said.
Cemetery workers took the casket away. They lowered it 7 feet into a concrete chamber in the ground. They packed the empty space tight with dirt.
Seventy-two years and 334 days had passed since Lonnie was killed in action. At last, his body would be moved no more.