Funeral Service: VA Failed to Pay Bills for Unclaimed Veteran Burials for Years

A Washington, D.C., funeral service battled the Department of Veterans Affairs over the burial of unclaimed veterans, until the News4 I-Team started asking questions.

Now, the local couple is finally getting reimbursed for services they’ve already performed – after a two-year battle.

"It put us behind a bit, quite a bit, but we're managing," said Roger Mason. "I'm sure there's some firms out there who would just say, 'We're not getting paid, we're not doing it.'"

But the Masons are a military family, with three generations of service, so they were proud to help in 2015 when D.C.'s VA Medical Center first asked them to help bury veterans who died there and were unclaimed.

Since then, they've purchased caskets, provided funeral services, and arranged for the burial of eight veterans at Quantico National Cemetery. And they continued to do so even after the VA failed to pay the bills.

"You hear the bugle off in the distance, and whether anybody's there or not, a tear comes to your eye," said Roger Mason, who has been in the funeral business for 30 years.

"The veteran deserves this," he said of the military honors, "I'm looking at the person, I can see what scars they may have from war, so I can imagine what they went through."

Sometimes he and his wife, Christina, are the only ones there to see it, or to accept the folded flag in an unclaimed veteran's honor.

"I think about it, it's just too hard," said Christina Mason, choking back tears.

When a veteran dies without any next of kin or someone able to pay for the burial, the Department of Veterans Affairs deems the remains "unclaimed" and is supposed to step in to help financially.

"I would do it knowing I wasn't getting paid for it. I would bury the soldier. But I wouldn't expect anything from the VA," said Christina Mason. "But don't tell me we're in a business deal and then you don't hold up your end of the deal - that's different."

The Masons handled the arrangements for Harry Tolson, who may not have been surrounded by his own family in later years but had developed quite a fond church family at Bethesda New Life Gospel Church.

"A very colorful guy," Pastor Jesse Richardson, Jr. recalls of Mr. Tolson."Always smiling, never had a problem starting up a conversation with a stranger."

Richardson says Tolson was smart, opinionated, and talked so much about city politics, his Kenilworth neighbors affectionately called him "the mayor." When he died, his church family threw him a funeral as vibrant as the songs he'd belt out in the choir.

"We loved him, we loved him. One of the hardest homegoings of the church," recalled Richardson, adding that the Masons were a huge part of making that happen.

"I thought it was awesome," Richardson said. "They have a love for what they're doing. But unfortunately love won't pay the grocery bill."

The Masons spent months mired in VA paperwork, on phone calls, even in person, pleading for their payments. Short of a few partial payments in 2016, they were still waiting on roughly $16,000.

"We get the runaround instead of getting an answer," Roger Mason said. "This organization here is not going to pay, this one here is responsible. You go to this one here, and they say, 'We're not responsible.'"

Christina Mason said it isn't so much about the money, as the principle -- and an honor these veterans deserve.

"These guys protected our country. They gave up their lives, they gave up their body parts. I'm very disappointed in the VA that now you won't take care of your own?" she said.

Frustrated, the Masons reached out to the News4 I-Team, which spent weeks digging through the red tape to track down who was responsible for the payments.

After weeks of calling multiple departments, the I-Team finally got an answer. The VA said it will pay all of the Masons’ outstanding bills.

This week the Masons confirmed they got the money owed to them.

"The Masons did a fantastic job caring for the veterans' remains, and we were happy to have them do it," D.C. VA Medical Center Assistant Director Jeremy Whiteman said.

But Whiteman added that the Masons' services should have been hired via contract, through a competitive bidding process. He wasn't sure why that procedure wasn't followed but said it would be going forward to keep something like this from happening again.

"It's something that should be addressed. They need to make cleaner lines between authorities and who is to do what, maybe rewrite their regulations. And someone should be in charge of paying the bills," Christina Mason said.

But even with the battle they've had to fight to get paid, the Masons would do it all again.

"I'm glad we did bury the soldiers," Christina Mason said. "They deserved to be buried. They deserved this honor."

Reported by Jodie Fleischer, produced by Rick Yarborough, shot by Steve Jones and Jeff Piper, and edited by Steve Jones.

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