It was a chance meeting between a Tampa VA Medical Center employee and a funeral director that led to a program that now honors deceased Veterans who have no one else to honor them as they transition to their final resting place.
Final Salute: The Last Mile provides a motorcycle escort to the Florida National Cemetery for Veterans who pass at Tampa and Bay Pines VA Medical Centers and who have no family to claim their remains.
David Allen, a Tampa VA biomedical information systems specialist and member of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association, was looking for a little fresh air when he stepped out onto the hospital loading dock earlier this year. When he saw a hearse parked there with a flag-draped coffin clearly visible inside, his curiosity got the better of him.
“I was thinking this has got to be somebody important, so instead of going where I was going to go, I climbed down and went to talk to who I thought was the driver.” That person turned out to be the owner of Veterans Funeral Care. “We got to talking and he said, No, this is an unclaimed Vet, and that struck a chord with me. He explained that the Veteran had passed away and either had no family who would claim him or no family to claim him.”
The Final Journey
Allen found out that Veterans pass away without family to claim them several times a year at both Tampa and Bay Pines VA. When that happens, the hospital contracts Veterans Funeral Care to transport the Veteran’s remains to Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell, Florida, more than 45 miles away, for a direct internment with no military honors. Those honors normally have to be requested by the family.
Allen, an Army Desert Shield/Desert Storm Veteran, has ridden with the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association (CVMA) for several years. He felt they could do something to honor these Veterans. So he spoke with the association’s executive board and the funeral home officials.
“We were fortunate enough to be able to sit down with both directors, and they absolutely loved the idea,” Allen said. “It was, why didn’t we know this was happening? It really boils down to nobody knew.”
Official policies are now in place at both Tampa and Bay Pines VA recognizing Final Salute: The Last Mile as an official partnership between the hospitals and the CVMA. The first escort at Tampa took place in February 2019, and there have been eight more escort missions at Tampa and four at Bay Pines since then.
Now, whenever a Veteran passes away at the hospital with no family to claim the remains, either Allen or the Veteran Experience officer is notified. Allen starts the coordination process with his fellow CVMA members, decedent affairs and the funeral home. The funeral home now requests military honors for each Veteran as well.
The program has been such a success that Allen recently received a challenge coin from Dr. Richard A. Stone, VHA’s executive in charge, thanking him for creating the program.
While both Tampa and Bay Pines VA signed on for The Final Salute: The Last Mile, Allen is now working with the Miami VA Medical Center to implement a similar program. There has been talk of possibly rolling it out nationally as well.
“I would love to hear that there would never be a Veteran who passed away at a VA where they did not get an escort, that didn’t have somebody to go and take them and be with them in that final moment,” Allen said. “Even if there’s not a CVMA, there’s a VFW Riders or American Legion Riders.”
The mission doesn’t end at the cemetery for the CVMA, either. The organization adds the name of each Veteran escorted to their rolls and toasts them at each membership meeting.
For Allen, the emotions involved in escorting these Veterans is worth the effort.
“There’s a sense of pride from saying, Hey, we stepped up and claimed this guy, we claimed him as a brother,” Allen said. “We did the right thing so that he didn’t go alone.”