Stars and stripes wave on rows of American flags leading to the Rio Grande Valley State Veterans Cemetery in Mission. They lead to a Mission Fire Department truck parked outside the entrance with a large American flag fluttering from the towering ladder.

The Mission firefighters were among the law enforcement present Friday during a ceremony for unaccompanied veteran, Apolonio Leyva, who died May 1. Leyva served in the United States Marine Corps from March 1972 to May 1974.

“Once a Marine, always a Marine,” said Sean Downey, commandant with the Rio Grande Valley Detachment of the Marine Corps League.

Downey accepted the folded flag that draped over Leyva’s coffin — usually claimed by next of kin — as part of the ceremony lead by Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8788.

“They say he was unaccompanied because he didn’t have any relatives here,” said Tony Cordova, honor guard captain of the VFW, “but as far as being accompanied, we’re here to take care of that end of the business.

“We don’t get paid to do this. We do this because the veteran deserves it.”

After Leyva was honored during a ceremony which included a 21-gun salute, veterans were asked to pay their last respects. They formed a line and one by one, they marched to the coffin, pivoted to salute Leyva.

Cordova and the VFW have attended 67 funerals this year, and were present at 160 last year. They’re usually tasked with honoring veterans west of Weslaco and have traveled as far north as Alice.

“If we get a special request, we’re not going to turn it down,” he said.

‘REAL REASON FOR MEMORIAL DAY’

While Memorial Day honors those would died while serving, attendees took the opportunity to speak about the holiday anyway.

“Memorial Day should be more about remembering the sacrifices for our freedoms we enjoy,” said Downey.

People see Memorial Day as a long weekend, associating it more with sales and events, said Cordova.

“Not very many of them mention the real reason for Memorial Day … to remember the soldiers that have fallen in defense of our great country,” Cordova said.

Like most former Marines, Cordova still refers to himself as “a Marine,” and he said it was meaningful to be there for a fellow Devil Dog.

“I don’t know (Leyva’s) history, but I know what my history is,” Cordova said. “I’m a Vietnam veteran.

“I just hope that there’s someone here like this when I go.”

Cordova and Downey spoke appreciatively of those who showed up Friday to honor Leyva. And while he may have been classified as “unaccompanied,” he wasn’t alone.

“It’s important that we come out and they don’t go quietly,” Downey said of vets. “They go with family.”