“This Veteran has no immediate family all are welcome to attend.”
That line in the obituary of 80-year-old Naples resident Edward Pearson has prompted an outpouring of support and gestures of solidarity from local veterans groups and community members who want to ensure that the elderly veteran receives a proper burial.
Dozens of community members are now expected to gather at the Sarasota National Cemetery Tuesday at 12:30 pm for the internment of Pearson’s ashes.
A member from Buglers Across America will play Taps, and doves will be released in Pearson’s honor.
“As far as unclaimed veterans goes, this is this is a bit unusual,” said Sarasota National Cemetery Assistant Director Edward Lyons. “It's very nice though to see the amount of support an outreach that is coming in from the community in the local veteran service organizations.”
When Pearson died on August 31, he left no money to pay for a funeral.
A social worker contacted Michael Hoyt, the funeral director of Legacy Options Funeral and Cremation Services of Naples. The family-owned company is known to provide free funerary services to homeless and indigent veterans in Collier County.
“We immediately said that we would take care of things for him,” said Hoyt.
After learning through a friend of Pearson’s of his military affiliation, Hoyt was able to secure a spot for Pearson at the Sarasota National Cemetery.
“We’re just a small family-owned funeral home and we try and do our part,” he said. “When we hear about any veteran that doesn’t have a family or that doesn’t have the means to have a service, we’ve always stepped up. That’s how we give back to the community that we live in and work in.”
Florida friends. Say goodbye to Edward Pearson, an 80-year-old veteran with no family. Details in photo. pic.twitter.com/PnvCudd2Ej
— Howard Altman (@haltman) September 30, 2019
Pearson’s obituary garnered national attention when local veterans' organizations and state politicians began sharing his story on Twitter, yet there is little known about him. The few biographical details came from what Hoyt learned from Pearson's discharge papers.
Born in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania, Pearson served in the U.S. Army from 1962 to 1964 before he was honorably discharged. He lived in Naples for the last twenty-five years of his life where, according to the Miami Herald, he worked for Marriott Hotel Services Inc.
READ MORE of WUSF's coverage of 'unclaimed' veterans
According to Roderick Thomas, Executive Director of the Florida National Cemetery, there are approximately 26 veterans buried every day in Florida. Each month he says there are three or four unclaimed veterans - those whose families either can’t attend the funeral for monetary reasons, or who just don't have any family at all.
“We do everything we can to make sure all of our veterans are recognized for their service and sacrifice to this nation,” said Thomas.
“It doesn't matter if they only serve two years, or if they... never went overseas, they still gave part of their life and part of their time to this country and that should be recognized and respected.”
Thomas said that each cemetery has its own way of memorializing unclaimed veterans. Florida National, located in Bushnell, has a committee that holds a quarterly service where honors are given for all veterans who were interred without family members present.
Other cemeteries like Sarasota National rely on volunteer groups like the Patriot Guard and the American Legion or the Sheriff’s office to honor fallen veterans in lieu of family.
“As a veteran myself, it’s something that is very personal and near in our heart to make sure that - even though they may not have blood relatives in attendance - they do have their brothers and sisters in arms in attendance,” said Edward Lyons.
Oct. 1, noon update: correcting name of the funeral director of Legacy Options Funeral and Cremation Services of Naples to Michael Hoyt, instead of Michael White.