A poignant scene unfolded in Dickson, Tennessee, on Monday as “hundreds” of people gathered to pay their final respects to veteran Ronnie Lee Toler.
The mourners lined the streets and saluted the man as a motorcade accompanying his body drove by. At the burial grounds, a crowd of veterans and active duty soldiers, many in full regalia and carrying American flags, stood ready to say their goodbyes.
Incredibly, all of the mourners were strangers to the deceased.
According to WKRN-TV, when Toler died in August at the age of 66, his body was never claimed. But thanks to the generosity of a local funeral home and a viral social media post about the veteran's story, Tennesseans rallied to ensure he got a proper send-off.
“This is what it should be for every soldier we lose, whether it's a veteran or active duty,” Annette Robeck, an attendee at Toler’s funeral, told Scripps Media. “You don't ever leave a soldier behind.”
As WSMV-TV reports, news of Toler’s death spread through the Dickson community -- and beyond -- after an employee of the Dickson Funeral Home shared a message about the veteran on his Facebook page earlier this month.
Robert Rhoads wrote on September 16 that the home had been entrusted with the remains of an “unclaimed veteran.” He then invited people to attend a service organized in Toler's honor.
“After three weeks of trying to locate family we have come to the conclusion that Mr. Toler does not have any family in the Dickson County area,” the funeral home wrote in a Facebook post a day later, adding that the man had “proudly served his country” in the U.S. Army in the 1970s.
“We had the choice of cremating him or giving him a burial and wanted to choose to honor him and his legacy,” Chris Mayberry, director of the funeral home, told Scripps Media.
Toler’s story spread like wildfire on Facebook, and many people -- including members of the Patriot Guard Riders, a group that sometimes forms an honor guard at military funerals -- stepped forward to show their support.
On Monday, Toler was buried at Middle Tennessee Veteran’s Cemetery. It was the “largest [turnout] in recent memory” at the burial grounds, Scripps Media reports. Attendees came from across the state.
“It brings tears to your eyes the feeling of so many people coming together to honor someone they never met in their life before,” Patriot Guard head rider Mary Anne Keough told the news outlet.
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