CASPER, WYOMING – Connie Jacobson didn’t know what to expect when she told a local newspaper about the body of a Vietnam veteran that had recently arrived inside her office.
The Natrona County Coroner was used to the scrambling that typically came with the job of finding next of kin. Family members of homeless veterans were sometimes tricky to track down.
But this case was particularly difficult. She had a name and not much else.
Stephen Carl Reiman. He was 63.
“We know for many years he lived a solitary life,” said Jacobson, an RN whose own father was a World War II veteran.
So she reached out to a reporter with the Casper Star Tribune. Would the paper put out the word of Reiman’s death?
And that’s how it all started.
“Someone still loves him. I just need to find them,” Jacobson said.
No one really knows why Stephen Reiman came to Wyoming a few years ago. He arrived in Sheridan in northern Wyoming and quickly made contact with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Jacobson knew that thanks to her contacts with the VA.
His medical records told her that when he became ill early in November, the Sheridan VA Medical Center decided to transport him to the Wyoming Medical Center in Casper.
He died on November 17th.
At the time no one, outside of a few nurses in the hospital’s ICU, took much notice.
When the body came into her office, Jacobson went to work as she turned to her computer databases in an effort to find any family members.
Military records told her he served in the U.S. Navy between 1971 and 1975. A VA doctor’s report indicated prolonged periods of alcoholism and depression in the decades that followed his service.
There was little else to go on.
That’s when she turned to Elise Schmelzer with the Casper Star Tribune.
Maybe a story could generate some leads. And maybe, if nothing turned up, she could see if the community of Casper would come out to his funeral service planned for the following week.
The headline said it all.
“Vietnam vet with no known family to be buried in Casper; coroner hopes people will attend his funeral,” it read.
Schmelzer’s article quickly became the most popular story on the newspaper’s website. In the comment section, readers turned into researchers in an effort to try to figure out just who might have known Reiman.
Others simply left kind words.
“I salute you Mr. Reiman. Thank you for your service to this great country,” wrote one reader.
“I didn't know my fellow sailor, Mr. Reiman. We may have crossed paths while serving in Vietnam or shared a beer ashore in Quezon City in the PI. Rest assured I will join my fellow brothers as we lay this fine sailor to rest next week,” wrote another.
Jacobson quickly turned her attention to the upcoming service.
The Patriot Guard committed early. Firefighters agreed to place a truck along the funeral procession route.
The Oregon Trail State Veterans Cemetery in nearby Evansville would serve as Reiman’s final resting spot.
“All of that tells you a lot about this community,” said Jacobson. “This community is really a community.”
She hoped for maybe a dozen or so people to show up. “Stephen deserves nothing less,” she thought.
Little did she know what was about to happen next.
Diane Reiman hadn’t heard from her younger brother in years. Living in Irvine, California, she thought about him from time to time as she assumed he was struggling to get his life back on track.
Then the word came. The internet sleuths on the Casper Star Tribune had figured it out.
That’s when she learned that in a few days her brother would be buried with full military honors in Casper, Wyoming.
She knew she had to be there.
“I’m sure that he probably felt no one cared,” she said.
She got on a flight from California to Wyoming not knowing what to expect.
Connie Jacobson picked her up at the airport. “That’s just what we do here in Wyoming,” she said.
Tuesday morning, with a fresh coat of snow on the ground, Connie Jacobson marveled at the procession.
A mile deep, she figured.
“He deserves nothing less than this,” she said.
Strangers arrived by the car, truck and fire truck. “I think [Stephen] will be up in the clouds smiling from ear to ear,” said a member of the Glenrock Fire Department as he raised a flag high atop his truck’s ladder.
The chapel on the cemetery grounds filled well beyond capacity.
Someone told Jacobson that only one other time had anyone seen the chapel so full.
“This community comes together for its veterans,” she said.
Sitting in the front row, Diane Reiman looked over the crowd and spotted the nurses who waited bedside as her brother passed.
“A special place in my heart goes out to those nurses in the ICU who came to this service to tell me they were there for him when he died,” said Diane.
Her brother hadn’t been forgotten.
“I’m just so overwhelmed with gratitude that so many people took the time to come,” she said. “This is so much more than I ever imagined.”
When the services ended, Jacobson walked her out. “You need someone with you at these times,” said Jacobson.
Diane took one last look at the cemetery and got in Jacobson’s car.
Jacobson’s job was finally complete. “It was a good day for Diane,” she said. “It was a good day for both of us.”