Service for Army veteran with no family prompts funeral home owners to start Operation LOVE

By RAFAEL GUERRERO | The Courier-News | Published: February 29, 2020

ELGIN, Ill. (Tribune News Service) — One month ago, the Symonds-Madison Funeral Home held a funeral for an Army veteran whose body went unclaimed by family and friends.

The service for John James Murphy was attended by hundreds of people and drew national attention. For funeral home owners Daniel and Joy Symonds, the experience was overwhelming.

“I’m still in shock, still in awe,” Daniel Symonds said. “I even had other funeral home directors call me (to say),'You did our service proud.'”

Because of that event, the couple has decided to launch Operation LOVE, a network connecting volunteers with businesses and organizations that can assist military veterans. Their first contribution to the effort will take place Wednesday, when they hold a service for another unclaimed veteran.

“We’ve had a lot of people say they want to help — but not just at (military) funerals," Joy Symonds said. "A lot of people kept saying why couldn’t we have been there before the funeral? I know there’s opportunities out there to be there for veterans.”

The LOVE in the project’s name stands for “Love Our Veterans Elgin."

“Operation LOVE is our answer. For every veteran who fears being forgotten, we will find someone to be their friend,” Daniel Symonds said.

The project’s objectives are to continue the practice of providing services to unclaimed veterans, to connect volunteers with local veterans, and to promote Elgin-area veterans service organizations and events, the said.

The ball started rolling on the effort the same week the Murphy funeral was held. A nursing home called about one of their residents who had been admitted to the hospital, Daniel Symonds said.

Ronald Olson, 83, was an Army veteran who served as a combat engineer with Company C, 34th Engineering Battalion from 1959 to 1961. The Elgin resident was close to dying, Symonds said.

“'Were you serious about taking care of veterans who don’t have their families?' the nursing home director asked Symonds. “Absolutely, I told them.”

Shortly after that call, he received another inquiry. A woman wanted to how she and her sister could help veterans because they didn’t know where to start.

“'Is there any way we can help today? Can we do something right now?'” she asked Symonds. “'No, but I actually have an idea,'" he responded. ‘There’s a gentleman in the hospital right now who doesn’t have anybody and is ready to pass away.’”

Symonds said the two sisters saw Olson that same day. Symonds went to visit him later.

“It was moving to me, I’ll tell you,” he said.

“When I got to see (Olson) at the ICU, I walked up to him. ... I told him your first sergeant is here, I’m going to take good care of you," said Symonds, a first sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve.

Olson died Feb. 6 at Presence St. Joseph Hospital in Elgin. According to his obituary, he was preceded in death by his only child, Cyndi Mundro, and his son-in-law, David Mundro. His only survivor was his friend, Tammy Newsome, the obituary said.

Olson’s service, which is open to the public, is scheduled for at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the funeral home, 305 Park St. It will be followed by a procession to the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood for an interment with military honors at 2 p.m.

Through Operation LOVE, the Symonds were able to find others to help. Local restoration business Mastercat Team, for example, helped line up pallbearers.

"The fact that they’re doing Operation LOVE, it gave me goosebumps when they first asked me if I wanted to get involved,” said Shawn Campbell, director of sales for Mastercat.

Joy Symonds launched the group’s outreach efforts via a volunteer registration form and a Facebook group. Volunteer opportunities and local events hosted by veteran-focused nonprofits will be shared there, she said.

“This is an opportunity,” she said. “(Murphy’s funeral) exposed a gap in our community. There are veterans who are hurting ... there are veterans right here in Elgin who need to know people care.”

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