updated 11/12/2007 3:15:30 PM ET 2007-11-12T20:15:30

A funeral director is giving a Veterans Day gift to a Marine he never met: A proper reburial.

The director, Isaiah Owens, said Monday he'll pick up the reburial costs for a man who will be exhumed from a national cemetery nearly four years after he was mistakenly interred there in a bureaucratic blunder. Until Owens stepped up and volunteered to pay the $3,000 to $4,000 in funeral expenses, the man faced the prospect of being reburied in Potter's Field, a pauper's graveyard in New York City.

"Whoever he is, he can't do anything for himself any more," Owens said. "I'd rather this for him than having him go to Potter's Field."

The mix-up apparently is the first time "somebody was buried who we thought was somebody else" in any of the national cemeteries, which date to the Civil War era, said Michael Nacincik, a spokesman for the National Cemetery Administration.

The error was discovered in late September when the family of Willie Hayes sought to have the Army veteran buried at Calverton National Cemetery on Long Island, only to find that a William Hayes had been buried there in 2003. Cemetery officials initially balked at the new request, but after being presented with overwhelming evidence that Hayes was a legitimate war veteran, the burial proceeded.

Officials then launched an investigation and announced last week that the mix-up was apparently the result of a clerical error.

Both men served in the military during the Vietnam War, but William Hayes received an "other than honorable" discharge, making him ineligible for a military cemetery plot, Nacincik said. Details on the circumstances of the discharge were not immediately available.

Willie Hayes of Harlem died Sept. 30. Born in 1948, he served in the Army from 1969 to 1970, earning several medals. William Hayes of the Bronx borough was born in 1943 and served in the Marine Corps from 1965 to 1969. He was buried on Christmas Eve 2003, about two months after dying in a nursing home.

No one came forward to claim his body, and the Bronx nursing home staff believed he was homeless.

"The names were very, very similar," and the year of birth was off by one number, Calverton's director, Michael Picerno told Newsday.

Calverton was closed for the holiday Monday.

Owens also handled the burial of Willie Hayes last month. And he's been to Potter's Field.

"It's a no man's land where everyone is buried in simple pine boxes," Owens said. "I always get a real sad feeling when I leave that place."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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