COLUMBUS — Billy Harold Watts was a decorated and disabled Vietnam War veteran. He had six children, 14 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
After collapsing in early June while home alone in Marion County, the 70-year-old lost his battle with lung cancer on Father's Day in a Columbus hospice.
Estranged from his family, no next-of-kin was found before he was buried in a pauper's grave.
But through a remarkable series of events, his family was eventually reached and local veterans were alerted. They, along with other caring folks in the community, rallied together to have his body exhumed for a proper burial: a funeral with military honors in his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi.
"It was just a blessing after a blessing at the end of all of this," said daughter-in-law Carla Watts of Jackson, Tennessee.
Billy served for three years active-duty in the U.S. Marines Corps. He earned two Purple Hearts, a National Defense Service Medal, a Vietnamese Service Medal, a Vietnamese Campaign Medal and a Combat Action Ribbon. He was a private when he was honorably discharged in 1970 at age 21.
Although he wasn't diagnosed, Billy had symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and was "highly medicated by the VA," Carla said. "When we cleaned Billy's house out, we took 26 bottles of narcotics to the sheriff's department and turned them in."
He and his last of six wives divorced in 2001, she said.
"Billy was very much a loner," she said.
Although he had a temper, Carla said, "when Billy was good, he would give you the shirt off his back. He loved to take care of people. He loved to help people. . . . But when it was bad, it was bad."
He was diagnosed with cancer five or six years ago, Carla said.
He worked as a police officer and a truck driver in Mississippi before his hidden wounds of war emerged. About 10 years ago, he moved to Marion County to be closer to family, Carla said, but a final falling out left him living alone the days before he died.
"We had so many mixed emotions because of things that had happened over the years," Carla said. "Even today, we still have so many questions and regrets that we didn't force him to talk to us. We would reach out to Billy, and he would ignore our phone calls. Or if he answered the phone and realized it was us, he would hang up on us. It was just really bad. But we loved him nonetheless."
Collapsed and rescued
June 3, after that last argument with one of his sons, Billy locked himself in the home, Carla said.
Suffering from stage 4 lung cancer, Billy collapsed and took a whole day to crawl to a phone and call 911. That's what Beth McWaters, one of the angelic strangers who helped him, said a nurse told her.
The ambulance took him to a Columbus hospital, where he told a nurse two dogs were left alone in his house. The nurse notified McWaters, a friend who rescues animals on the side.
The nurse told her, McWaters said, "I have a patient that's not going to make it very long, . . . and he's telling me he has no family whatsoever."
McWaters visited Billy in the hospital.
"It was sad, very sad," she said. "He didn't talk much, but he understood that I was going to get the dogs out."
Billy gave her the key to his home. McWaters couldn't take off work, so two other dog rescuers got Holly, a 5-year-old boxer, and Cooper, a 9-month-old cur, to a veterinarian.
McWaters told Billy the good news, and he gave her his check card to pay $1,200 to have them spayed, neutered and boarded until they were adopted, she said.
"He was an ornery fellow," she said, "but let me tell you: He loved those dogs."
Moved to hospice
On June 16, McWaters went to visit Billy, and was told he was moved to hospice care. But when she arrived at the hospice, she again was too late.
Billy died 5 minutes before she got there.
"I knew it was coming," she said, "but I was still sad."
A hospice staff member gave Billy's belongings to McWaters: his wallet, his keys and photos of his dogs.
"Somebody had taped my name on the bag with his personal items," McWaters said, figuring Billy must have mentioned her as the person he wanted to have them.
As she went through his wallet, McWaters saw his Veterans Identification Card.
"I knew instantly that I had to find some help," she said. ". . . I don't know any other way to live than to help others. That's what we're here for."
'We were all flabbergasted'
By June 20, still with no family member found to claim the body, McWaters went to Billy's house in Marion County.
She eventually called the landlord, who confirmed what a neighbor had told her — that Billy had children. The landlord brought her to meet one of Billy's sons.
McWaters told the landlord Billy's body was at Colonial Funeral Home in Phenix City. But while the landlord was on the phone with the funeral home, she overheard Billy had just been buried earlier that day.
"It just took my breath away," she said. ". . . We were all flabbergasted."
Pauper burials are for people either without identified families or from families certified by the Division of Family and Children's Services that can't afford the burial, said Columbus Public Works director Pat Biegler.
Billy was buried at 10:30 a.m. June 20 in Porterdale Cemetery, said Darrell Meadows, the city's cemetery division director.
Pauper burials do not involve a funeral service. The person is buried in a cardboard casket with a wooden bottom in a grave marked by a plaque, unless someone provides an upgrade, Biegler said. A columbarium also is available for those who are cremated.
The $925 fee for opening and closing the pauper's grave and $400 to the funeral home for delivering the body are covered by the city's budget, Biegler said.
Carla learned from a family member's Facebook post that Billy had died and was buried in a pauper's grave. She was upset — and had regret.
"We should have been there for him," she said, "but we had no way of knowing. . . . Knowing that he was buried pretty much in a cardboard box was one of the hardest things to stomach."
Carla and her husband, John, drove from their Tennessee home and arrived in Columbus on June 24. They immediately went to the Veterans Administration to get a copy of his military discharge papers.
The document contained a surprise.
"We knew we had one Purple Heart," Carla said. "We did not know he had two. . . . One of his wounds, he was shot in the stomach. The other one, I'm not sure of."
McWaters called a fellow animal rescuer, Wayne Wommack, owner of Backwater BBQ in Salem, Alabama, who was a U.S. Army staff sergeant during the Vietnam War.
He referred them to former Columbus Mayor Bob Poydasheff, a lawyer and a retired U.S. Army colonel who served in Vietnam.
Poydasheff started reaching out to his extensive contacts to help Billy's family exhume his body.
"The man was a hero," Poydasheff said. ". . . It piqued my interest because, after all, if we can't take care of veterans, who can? . . . I felt morally obligated."
'He deserved better'
Carla is a loss/prevention manager at Walmart. John drives a truck for Cisco Foods. They couldn't afford the cost of exhuming the body and having a proper funeral, she said.
After they returned home in Tennessee, Carla got a call from Watson-Tante and Watson-Giddens funeral homes owner Eddie Watson. He told her his company would take care of the exhumation for free.
"I was elated," she said.
"We'd heard about the situation," said Sam Way, who is director of those funeral homes in Marion and Schley counties and also deputy coroner for Marion County. ". . . He was a resident of Marion County and a veteran, and with all that transpired, Mr. Watson decided he deserved better than that."
Referring to Billy's war experience, Way added, "I can only imagine the stuff he saw and the sacrifices he made for our country to do what we do every day."
Billy was exhumed July 15, and he had made it known he wanted to be cremated and buried alongside his parents in Mississippi, Carla said. Watson-Tante also took care of the cremation and sent the urn to a funeral home in Oxford, where Billy's sister made the funeral arrangements.
To help raise funds for funeral costs, Poydasheff called retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Sam Nelson, chairman of the Chattahoochee Valley Veterans Council.
Nelson sent an email blast to the council's approximately 2,500 members to give them a chance to help. Eight individuals and organizations contributed.
"The checks started coming in," he said. ". . . I mean, it was just the most beautiful thing you ever saw."
Nelson noted, "This is the first time, in my knowledge, that the veterans community has taken on a big project like this and done it together," he said. "Usually, a post does charitable work by itself. But this time, the whole veterans community just chipped in."
Poydasheff said, "It shows you what Columbus, Georgia, and the veterans community is willing to do to go the extra mile."
The family gathered in Oxford, Mississippi, for the July 27 funeral, complete with military honors. Carla cried as Taps was played.
"I actually had a little sigh of relief that Billy finally got what he deserved," she said. "We didn't have the best relationship with Billy. None of his kids did. But the fight that I put up, I'd do it a hundred times over, because he deserved it."
"He fought for our country," she said. "Anyone who puts their life on the line for our country, to fight for our freedom, deserves more than to be thrown into a pauper's cemetery."
While getting to know Billy during his final days, McWaters said, he mentioned only one family member: a daughter who lives out of state. She figures he wanted to die without his family by his side.
"I hope I didn't disrupt his plan too much. . . . He did it his way. At the same time, I helped the family get closure too."