On Sunday, November 4, “just up the road a piece” in Murfreesboro, TN, a 69-year-old Vietnam vet by the name of Leo Stokely breathed his last and slipped away. He was a resident of a nursing home, and while well-loved by the staff and fellow residents, he apparently was without any blood relatives or any type of kin anywhere. No one ever visited him, and no one claimed his body. Lance Corporal Leo was a Marine who had bravely served his country, and it was simply unacceptable to the veterans’ community of the Tennessee Valley that he not be given the honor he deserved in death.
While many times I get annoyed with social media, here is where the artificial linking of strangers via the modern miracle of electronics has paid off in a most remarkable and heartwarming fashion. A veterans’ Facebook group sprang into action and began to get the word out re: wanting to give Leo a proper funeral. Posts and shares went viral, and all of a sudden there were people offering to drive others, people offering to be pallbearers, and my favorite was the response of a fellow veteran who said, “I just had a port put in and a feeding tube put in my stomach; my wife and I will definitely be there.” Another posted, “It’s only an hour and a half from me, seeing as its Veterans Day weekend, I can’t think of a better place to be.” And so they came from all over, over 300 strong. A veteran by the name of Andrew Conner noted, "I seen a post from the VFW you know saying that this gentleman had nobody. You know, the Marine Corps always says no man left behind, and I mean, we're not going to leave this guy behind today.”
Leo lived for the last four months of his life at a long-term care facility by the name of Waters of Cheatham, located in Ashland City. A group of his caregivers were interviewed at the service. They were all in tears, and through tears, Cherie Cox, one of his nurses, said, "He came to us with no family, no connections except for the VA staff and we became his family. And we loved him and cared for him and laughed at him. He was quite a character. He told a lot of jokes and he kept us laughing all day long.”
Leo’s legacy leaves a lump in my throat, and a deep feeling of hope that if he had been at any of the fine health facilities in Athens-Limestone, the story would have been even better. First of all, if I were a betting woman, I’d go high dollar on the premise that members of the respective health care staffs would have contacted any number of veterans’ organizations in our area and get after them about coming and seeing Leo while he was still alive. And then, knowing what I know about how staff members do their best to be with someone when they die, I would be quite sure that every effort would have been made to make sure he didn’t pass alone. I am confident that the Burial Detail would have given him a 21 gun salute. Jerry Barksdale would have interviewed Leo and would have tried to find out if he had family or friends anywhere across the fruited plain, and I can think of any number of ministers who would have considered it an honor to officiate at the funeral. That is how our North Alabama vets are, and they would have made Leo one of their own. As it was, to me Leo’s end of days and send-off did much to offset whatever dishonor he may have suffered, and my sad-and-glad heart says, “Rest in peace, Marine, and thank you for your service.”
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner