AUSTIN, Texas (KXAN) — Desaray Wilson does things many of us can’t or won’t. Not only did he sign up to serve our country when he was 20, but he also took on a daunting task.
“I love the saying that ‘We don’t serve because somebody died, we serve because somebody lived,’” said Wilson from his home in Houston.
Wilson was a mortuary affairs officer in the army. His job was to take care of fallen soldiers.
He estimated he cared for “close to 3,000,” people who died in the line of duty.
Wilson’s military records show his duties, stateside and overseas, included embalming, dressing soldiers, placing them in caskets and shipping their remains and property home to family. He said he considered it his honor.
“You get the chance to go through their personal effects, read the letters that they didn’t get a chance to send home, look at the pictures in their wallet,” he said.
It was less of a job, he said, and more of a ministry. One that was recognized with an Army Commendation Medal noting his “outstanding knowledge of mortuary affairs procedures.”
When Wilson left the army after serving for nearly a decade, he returned to Texas to pursue his dream of becoming a funeral director. Little did he know it would turn into a years-long battle with the state agency that issues funeral director licenses, the Texas Funeral Service Commission.
License granted, then taken away
Wilson argued his extensive military experience should replace the requirement of a mortuary science degree.
“From 2011 all the way up until this year, actually, I was going to the commission every time, sitting before the board,” he said. And every time he sat before the commission, he said they turned him down because he did not have a mortuary degree.
But this year, Wilson said the latest executive director for the Texas Funeral Service Commission, James White, took his military background into account and gave Wilson the green light to take the required national exam in order to get the license.
Wilson passed the exam on the first try and in May 2023 got his license. But just three months later, in early August, Wilson said Executive Director White had bad news. The commission was reversing course. Wilson would have to relinquish his license or risk having it revoked. He said there was no due process offered to defend himself before the commission, and he reluctantly gave it back.
“I was crying,” he said, “Sad, I was just heartbroken.”
Wilson added, “It tore me up to relinquish a license that I wasn’t given — I actually earned.”
Executive Director White would not comment on why Wilson could no longer have a license, but, in a statement to KXAN Investigates wrote, “Decisions are made with careful attention to statutes and agency rules.”
What Texas law says
Texas law states, “Notwithstanding any other law, a state agency that issues a license shall, with respect to an applicant who is a military service member or military veteran, credit verified military service, training, or education toward the licensing requirements, other than an examination requirement, for a license issued by the state agency.”
If there is confusion about what’s allowed in the state, it’s not coming from Texas State Sen. Jose Menendez.
Menendez wrote a bill in 2015 that became law that year. At the time, he testified before a legislative committee and said, “The bill credits apprenticeship and training requirements for licenses if a veteran learned that skill in the military.”
Regarding military service members, veterans and spouses, Menendez’s measure added to state that, “The executive director of a state agency may waive any prerequisite to obtaining a license for an applicant described by Subsection (a) after reviewing the applicant’s credentials.”
Menendez wrote to KXAN Investigates:
“Over the length of my time in the legislature I’ve authored and championed many bills to help veterans and their families make the transition from military to civilian life. The bill in question was meant to help veterans who had specialized training in the military make the transition quickly and efficiently in Texas. It’s my hope that the leadership of the Texas Funeral Commission allow Sergeant Wilson to continue working, especially since he passed all the required exams. When we thank our veterans for their service, we should back our words with deeds that prove it.”
Wilson said he’s not giving in.
“Just like a soldier, if you tell us ‘no’, we are going to continue to fight,” he said.
That mindset is one reason he said he didn’t go to mortuary college years ago to get his license. And he said he’ll keep fighting, for himself and other Texas veterans looking to get into any profession requiring licensing.
“If I concede now and just go along with it, I’m not going to make it any better for anyone coming behind me,” Wilson said.
KXAN reached out to the Texas Attorney General’s Office several times to see if it advised the Texas Funeral Service Commission on how to interpret the law. The attorney general’s office never responded.
We also wanted to hear from Larry Allen, the presiding officer of the Texas Funeral Service Commission. Allen did not return Investigator Mike Rush’s repeated messages, either.
The governor appoints members of the Texas Funeral Service Commission. Gov. Greg Abbott’s office also did not respond to several requests for comment on the matter.
A representative from the governor’s office did respond to a letter Wilson sent to the governor asking for help. The representative stated the office is asking the commission to review Wilson’s situation and report back.