Efforts of Stormont workers ensure veteran has proper burial

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - A special American flag soon will have a place of honor at Stormont Vail in Topeka.

Sgt. James Wilson was laid to rest at Leavenworth National Cemetery in October 2019. (Courtesy: Shelley D'Attilio / Stormont Vail)

It's a lasting reminder of a man they never knew in life, but who, in death, made a profound impact on the lives of Stormont's lab director Shelley D'Attilio and supervisor Heather Abrams.

"We were kind of like his last family here," D'Attilio said.

He was James Wilson. Wilson died in June with no next of kin to claim his body.

Normally, the person would transfer to the Shawnee County coroner, but they were out of room so Wilson stayed at Stormont's morgue. The morgue at the hospital falls under the supervision of the lab, and, as weeks became months, D'Attilio and Abrams couldn't forget him.

"It just became more and more important that we have a place for him to go," D'Attilio said.

"Every week it seemed to fuel the fire a little bit more, trying to figure out a way to help him because he didn't have anybody out there that was able to," Abrams added.

The ladies noticed visits to the VA in Wilson's medical record. They called them, and learned if they could provide honorable discharge papers showing Wilson was a veteran, the VA could assist with burial.

Looking for help in obtaining the correct documents, D'Attilio and Abrams reached out to Jolayne Greer at Penwell-Gabel in Topeka. She knew just who to contact for the forms.

They learned James P. Wilson was a sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, a Vietnam veteran, serving from 1966 to 1970.

Greer then helped with another call to Leavenworth National Cemetery.

On October 9th, Greer and D'Attilio traveled to Leavenworth National Cemetery to watch as Sgt. Wilson was laid to rest.

"To know that he was in a place that respected his service, that he was with other veterans, and to know that his service was honored - it meant a lot to us," D'Attilio said.

Perhaps most meaningful was when the Air Force Honor Guard presented the flag that covered the casket to those who showed Wilson this final act of kindness.

"(It was) incredibly moving to be handed this flag by the Honor Guard," D'Attilio said. "I did not know Mr. Wilson in life, but at that point he felt like he was a family member of ours, that we wanted to be there for him."

As for why they went to so much effort for someone they didn't know, Abrams said it is simply how people should treat one another.

"At the end of everyone's life, they deserve to be treated as a human being, respectfully," she said. "It's funny, you don't even know what the person looks like or who they were before they passed away, but doing something like that for another person - it really humanizes everything."

Stormont later learned Wilson had a brother who also is buried at Leavenworth National Cemetery.

The flag will be framed and displayed at Stormont.

Greer says if there's a veteran in your family, talk to your funeral planner about options you may have for assistance.