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It’s not often that you hear of a high schooler who works in a funeral home, but that’s what Bryan Foster did in the 1980s in East St. Louis, Illinois.

It earned him the nickname “The Undertaker.” He got tired of seeing his friends and other young people end up at that funeral home, so he left. He ran away. He joined the U.S. Army.

Soon after his training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, he was deployed to Saudi Arabia for the first Gulf War. He did two tours there and also went to Bosnia and Korea and to Fort Polk, Louisiana.

Fast-forward to today. Retired Sgt. 1st Class Bryan Foster is the funeral director/president at Foster Funeral Home in Madison and Beloit. He’s back to where he started, but this time, he’s staying. Foster found a way to take care of his friends, his “battle buddies.”

“Every time, even through initial entry training, we always talk about the soldier, and the soldier has a buddy that goes with them everywhere they go. They know their ups and downs, they even know some of their family and friends. They’re their partner when they’re having a hard time at basic training, then their battle buddy is the one they lean their shoulder on” says Foster.

Last year, the funeral home received the body of a gentleman who was unclaimed. His family disowned him. He was a veteran. Foster turned to his business partner and said “I can’t leave a soldier behind. We have to provide him with military honors. He has to have his final salute.”

That’s when he started a foundation called Bring Home Our Battle Buddy. The idea is when Foster receives word from a medical examiner or a veteran’s service officer that a veteran who passed away is verified as homeless or unclaimed, he takes the soldier’s body and gives him or her a Final Salute: a military funeral.

“Sometimes it tears me up a little bit to know that this person sacrificed so much and to be belittled to ‘I don’t want him or her,’ how can we do that? God has blessed us and we are a nation of richness, and we can’t take care of them even in the final salute of our own veterans?” he says emotionally.

Foster wears his military uniform and sits in the place of the veteran’s family. He receives the flag that had been draped on the coffin. He’s hung onto all six flags of the six he’s buried so far, just in case a family member should have a change of heart.

Bring Home Our Battle Buddy is funded entirely through donations. Foster has been the biggest donor so far. If you can help, go to bhobb.org for more information.

Written by Charlotte Deleste

Charlotte Deleste is a news anchor and reporter for Madison’s WISC-TV.

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