A U.S. veteran died at a nursing home, abandoned. Hundreds of strangers came to say goodbye


AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Former U.S. Marine Gerry Brooks died alone at a nursing home in Maine, abandoned and all but forgotten. Then the funeral home posted a notice asking if anyone would serve as a pallbearer or simply attend his burial.
Within minutes, it was turning away volunteers to carry his casket.
A bagpiper came forward to play at the service. A pilot offered to perform a flyover. Military groups across the state pledged a proper sendoff.
Hundreds of people who knew nothing about the 86-year-old beyond his name showed up on a sweltering afternoon and gave Brooks a final salute with full military honors Thursday at the Maine Veterans' Memorial Cemetery in Augusta.
Patriot Guard Riders on motorcycles escorted his hearse on the 40-mile route from the funeral home in Belfast, Maine, to the cemetery. Members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars paid tribute with a 21-gun salute. Volunteers held American flags next to the casket while a crane hoisted a huge flag above the cemetery entrance.
Some saluted while filing by. Others sang The Marines' Hymn.
"It's an honor for us to be able to do this," said Jim Roberts, commander of the VFW post in Belfast. "There's so much negativity in the world. This is something people can feel good about and rally around. It's just absolutely wonderful." He said Brooks' son, granddaughter and son-in-law came to the funeral but did not speak during the service.
Roberts said the VFW is called a couple times a year about a deceased veteran with no family or with one that isn't willing to handle the funeral arrangements. But "we will always be there." Like other veterans helping out Thursday, he hadn't known Brooks.
So many groups volunteered to take part in paying tribute that there wasn't enough space to fit them into the 20-minute burial service, said Katie Riposta, the funeral director who put out the call for help last week.
"It renews your faith in humanity," she said.
More than 8 million of the U.S. veterans living are 65 or older, almost half the veteran population. They are overwhelmingly men. That's according to a U.S. Census Bureau report last year. As this generation dies, it said, their collective memory of wartime experiences "will pass into history."
Much about Brooks' life is unknown.
He was widowed and lived in Augusta. He died on May 18, less than a week after entering a nursing home, Riposta said. A cause of death was not released.
The funeral home and authorities reached his next of kin, but no one was willing to come forward or take responsibility for his body, she said.
"It sounds like he was a good person, but I know nothing about his life," Riposta said, noting that after Brooks' death, a woman contacted the funeral home to say he had once taken her in when she had no other place to go, with no details.
"It doesn't matter if he served one day or made the military his career," she said. "He still deserves to be respected and not alone."
The crowd on Thursday wasn't all strangers — and it turned out Brooks hadn't been one, either.
Victoria Abbott, executive director of the Bread of Life shelter in Augusta, said he had come every day to eat at their soup kitchen, always ready to crack "dad jokes" and make the staff smile. He had a favorite table.
"Your quintessential 80-year-old, dad jokes every day," Abbott said. "He was really great to have around. He was part of the soup kitchen family."
But most people there Thursday met him too late. The memorial book posted online by Direct Cremation of Maine, which helped to arrange the burial, had a few strangers' good wishes.
"Sir," one began, and ended with "Semper Fi."
The two others, a couple, thanked Brooks for his service. "We all deserve the love kindness and respect when we are called home. I hope that you lived a full beautiful life of Love, Kindness, Dreams and Hope," they wrote.
They added: "Thank you to all those who will make this gentleman's service a proper, well deserved good bye."
Linda Laweryson, who served in the Marines, said this was the second funeral in little over a year that she has attended for a veteran who died alone. Everyone deserves to die with dignity and be buried with dignity, she said.
Laweryson read a poem during the graveside service written by a combat Marine who reflects on the spot where Marines graduate from boot camp.
"I walked the old parade ground, but I was not alone," the poem reads. "I walked the old parade ground and knew that I was home."