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Korean War veteran's remains wound up at a Griffith Goodwill store. Unclaimed, they've been laid to rest.

Post-Tribune - 5/27/2018

May 27--As staff at a Griffith Goodwill store worked their way through donations, they made an unusual find: an urn.

Because it bore the name Mark Kelley, staff searched the internet for an obituary, said Terry Wheeler, who works maintenance at Goodwill, and found the man had died in New Mexico and was a Korean War veteran.

Wheeler said he has family members who are veterans and thought he needed to do something with the ashes. "I just couldn't let it go like that."

So he called Shawn Kochopolus, a Navy veteran from Cedar Lake, who called Jason Gootee, also a Navy veteran and a Lake County veterans service officer, who made arrangements with Hillside Funeral Home, which found the cremains a burial plot at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, in Elwood, Ill.

The remains of Mark "Bud" Kelley, 79, who died in New Mexico in 2013, were laid to rest with veterans' honors Thursday.

"If I couldn't have done anything, I would have done everything in my power to find somebody who could," Gootee said.

Finding an urn was new for Wheeler, and for those who helped find Kelley a resting place. "I've never seen this before," Wheeler said. "I think it's a rare thing."

Kochopolus said Wheeler called him about what to do with the ashes, and then reached out the county's Veterans Service Office. "To me, as a veteran, it made sense," Kochopolus said. "I wouldn't leave a man behind."

The Lake County Veterans Service Office routinely handles burials for families, Gootee said, but he can't remember any cases involving unclaimed remains.

"I was just taken aback at first that this was a situation," Gootee said.

The man's obituary said he once lived in Peru, Ind., Gootee said, and he reached out to the Miami County Veterans Service Office, which sent Kelley's service separation papers. Gootee said the paperwork showed Kelley was in the Air Force, served in the Korean War and was awarded two Bronze Stars.

Gootee called Hillside Funeral Home to see what arrangements could be made for the unclaimed cremains. With the discharge paperwork, Hillside was able to make arrangements with Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery.

"I'm just happy this fell into our hands," Gootee said. "And that it's an office that strives very hard to serve the veterans in this area.

"I'm just glad the pieces of the puzzle fell together."

Gootee said it was important that he made sure Kelley had a proper burial and was not just left alone. "I would hope somebody would do the same for me," he said.

Gootee said he tried to reach out to the next of kin whom the Miami County office had on file but never got a response.

"Sometimes families fall apart," Kochopolus said. "There are good people out there."

"You just hope someone good out there takes care of you when you're gone," Kochopolus said.

Gootee said he thought it was important to see Kelley buried with veteran's honors and not as unclaimed remains. "I can't imagine just floating around like that," Gootee said.

"It was just crazy to me," he said. "I didn't think this was something that would happen."

On Thursday Kelley's ashes were escorted to the cemetery by the Patriot Guard, taps was sounded, rifled fire was volleyed, a flag was presented, and he was laid to rest.

"It warmed my heart up to see this happen," Wheeler said. "For us to get this done for him is very satisfying for me."

clyons@post-trib.com

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(c)2018 the Post-Tribune (Merrillville, Ind.)

Visit the Post-Tribune (Merrillville, Ind.) at www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/post-tribune

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